In what could be the final matchup against his former team, Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saintsare set to take on Los Angeles Chargers on "Monday Night Football" with a chance to reclaim a winning record and share of the division lead.
The Chargers looked ready to pull an upset over another NFC South team last week when they jumped to a 24-7 lead late in the first half at Tampa Bay. But a fumble in the last minute of the half led to a Buccaneers touchdown and portended what was to come. Tom Brady and Co. poured on 24 second-half points and sealed the game with three minutes left on a Justin Herbert interception.
The Saints, meanwhile, got back to .500 last week in a comeback win over the Lions. After allowing a pair of touchdowns to open the game, the Saints responded by punching it into the end zone on their next five possession. New Orleans held off Detroit's attempted rally late in the fourth quarter, and after a Bucs loss on Thursday Night Football, the Saints can tie the Bucs at 3-2 with a win.
The Chargers lead the all-time series, 7-5, and actually are 4-1 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. However, the Saints have won all three meetings that Brees has started.
Los Angeles at New Orleans
Kickoff: Monday, Oct. 11 at 8:15 p.m. ET
Spread: Saints -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. How much will the Chargers miss Austin Ekeler?
Ekeler has been ruled for this game due to a left hamstring strain and a hyperextended knee. Through four weeks, he leads the Chargers in rushing yards (248) and is second in attempts (49). He also ranks third on the team in receptions (17) and receiving yards (144, respectively).
Do the Chargers possess a suitable substitute? Rookie Joshua Kelly has the most rushes (52) and second-most rushing yards (174) on the team. Quarterback Justin Herbert ranks third in both categories with 12 carries for 47 yards. No one else has double-digits in carries or more than 20 yards on the ground.
The Saints' defense has not yielded yardage on the ground easily. The Lions ran the ball 22 times but gained only 90 yards with one touchdown. The Packers picked up just 98 yards and one touchdown on 26 attempts. The Raiders accumulated 116 yards and a touchdown on 35 carries. The Buccaneers rushed 26 times for 86 yards and a touchdown.
Is Kelly or anyone else among the Chargers capable of filling the void left by Ekeler? Could the Chargers find a way to average four yards or more per rushing attempt?
2. Will the Saints continue to pressure opposing quarterbacks?
Last week at Detroit, Cameron Jordan, Trey Hendrickson, and David Onyemata each recorded a sack. That was the third time this season that three Saints defenders each recorded a sack. Hendrickson leads the defense with three sacks. Demario Davis and Onyemata have both recorded two sacks. Three others have one each.
With the Chargers' running attack presumably limited, Herbert will have to shoulder more of the offense. He took over as starting quarterback from Tyrod Taylor since the second game of this season. The first-rounder has played quite consistently in those three games. His passing yard totals varied between 290 and 330. He has thrown one interception while being sack twice per game. He rushed between three and five times for 14-18 yards per contest. Can Herbert raise his passing production to offset the loss of Austin Ekeler?
3. Can Emmanuel Sanders and Tre'Quan Smith continue to increase their contributions?
Sanders and Smith have steadily boosted their numbers in the absence of Michael Thomas. At Las Vegas, in the first game without Thomas, Smith caught five passes for 86 yards but Sanders had only one pass for 18 yards. The following week versus Green Bay, both receivers had four receptions each, for 42 yards by Smith and for 56 yards and a touchdown by Sanders. At Detroit last week, Smith hauled in four passes for 54 yards and two touchdowns while Sanders had six catches for 93 yards.
The Chargers had shown a considerable amount of resistance against opponents' passing attacks early in the season. They held the Bengals to 173 passing yards and no touchdowns while recording three sacks and an interception. They limited the Panthers to 221 passing yards with only one touchdown in addition to sacking Teddy Bridgewater twice. However, Tom Brady shredded them last Sunday: 30 completions for 369 yards and five touchdowns without any sacks.
Was last week's collapse by the Chargers' defense an anomaly or a revelation of vulnerability? Those gaudy passing stats helped the Bucs score three straight touchdowns to open the second half. Tampa Bay followed those with a field goal then five plays to run out the clock. The Chargers cannot afford to be so generous to Drew Brees and Co.
The Chargers will have to make a second consecutive long trip for a game. Last week, they were playing at 10 a.m. body time. Fortunately for them, this week's game requires a shorter flight with a kickoff in the early evening, according to their body clocks.
The Saints will head into their bye week after this contest. With a victory, they will sit above .500. With a defeat, they will have to stew in frustration of having lost two of their three initial home games. Their successful runs through October during the past few seasons will continue.
Prediction: Saints 38, Chargers 27
— 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.