Division leaders will face off when the New Orleans Saints return from their bye to take on the Baltimore Ravens. The Saints (4-1) enjoyed their week off after thrashing the Redskins on "Monday Night Football" to conclude Week 5. Even though New Orleans didn't play last week, its lead in the NFC South grew to a full game following Carolina's 23-17 loss to the same Washington team that the Saints beat by 24 points.
The Ravens (4-2) are coming off of a 21-0 whitewashing of the Titans on the road. That coupled with Cincinnati's loss to Pittsburgh has Baltimore tied for first record-wise with the Bengals in the tightly packed AFC North. Because of their 1-2 showing in divisional games thus far, the Ravens trail Cincinnati from a tiebreaker standpoint. But there are still plenty of games left.
The Ravens lead the all-time series, 5-1 and have beaten the Saints three straight times.
New Orleans at Baltimore
Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 21 at 4:05 p.m. ET
Spread: Ravens -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Baltimore's beat-up secondary
Injuries among the Ravens’ defensive backs have been rampant this year. Four of them are already on injured reserve and will definitely not be available on Sunday. Cornerback Anthony Levine Sr., has sat out some practice time due to hamstring problems. Anthony Averett has not played in the past four games for the same reason. Another cornerback, Brandon Carr, has been limited by knee issues. The plethora of hobbled and missing defensive backs leads to the next, broader question.
2. Can the Ravens cool off Drew Brees?
The Ravens must pressure Brees and not let him stay in pocket to carve up their secondary. The Saints rank third in the NFL in both total offense (424.0 ypg) and passing offense (320.8 ypg). Brees is averaging 332 passing yards per game and is the only quarterback who has started every game and has yet to throw an interception this season (in 190 attempts).
Baltimore needs to find a way to prevent yet another offensive explosion by the Saints. The Ravens are No. 1 in the NFL in total defense (270.8 ypg) and second against the pass (188.0 ypg), but some of that has do to with the teams they have played. Buffalo, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Tennessee all rank 20th or worse in the league in total offense, with the Bills and Titans checking in at 30th and 31st, respectively.
However, one thing Baltimore has done a very good job of is getting to the quarterback. The Ravens lead the league with 26 sacks, a number that is by and large due to the 11 they registered last week against Tennessee. Even though the Ravens have just five interceptions on the season, they are holding quarterbacks to the lowest completion rate (55.6) and fewest yards per pass attempt (6.0). But outside of Ben Roethlisberger, Brees will by far be the best quarterback Baltimore has faced this season.
The Ravens cannot realistically compete with the Saints in a scoring fest. Baltimore leads the league in scoring defense at 12.8 points per game allowed as only one team (Cincinnati) has managed more than 14 points. New Orleans comes in averaging a league-high 36 points per game. Something has to give.
It's worth pointing out that Brees is 0-4 in his career against the Ravens, completing 64.1 percent of his passes with nearly as many interceptions (eight) as touchdowns (nine), while getting sacked 10 times. Will Sunday produce better results for the NFL's all-time leading passer?
3. Will the Ravens be able to run the ball?
Playing keep-away with the ball could prove to be just as effective in limiting Brees as putting him under constant pressure and forcing errant throws. Baltimore's 46.9 percent conversion rate on third downs, third highest in the league, shows a reason for optimism. Nevertheless, the Ravens' rushing attack must exceed its tepid average of 99.2 yards per game (21st). Alex Collins is by far the team's leading rusher, but he's averaging 3.6 yards per carry and his season high is 68 yards (vs. Denver).
New Orleans' success in stopping the run has improved substantially compared to recent seasons. The Saints are currently No. 1 in the league with just 71.4 rushing yards allowed per game. Over the last three weeks, the defense has limited the opposition (Falcons, Giants, Redskins) to a total of 152 yards on the ground.
Baltimore also will want to limit mistakes when it has the ball, as the Ravens enter this game with a minus-two turnover margin and certainly don't want to give Brees and company extra possessions.
During Sean Payton’s 12-year tenure in New Orleans, the Ravens have proved to be the most problematic team. They are the only team that Payton has yet to earn a win against, and the same goes for Drew Brees, who is 0-4 in his career against Baltimore. During the Payton/Brees partnership, the Saints are 0-3 vs. the Ravens, including two losses at home.
Both teams enter this game on a high. Baltimore pitched a shutout against Tennessee on the road, while New Orleans has won four straight. Both are looking to continue the positive vibes and stay in first place in their respective divisions with a win Sunday afternoon.
This game will go down to the final minutes. Brees facing a depleted Ravens secondary gives the Saints an important edge. On defense, New Orleans continues its good work against the run, which prevents Baltimore from dominating time of possession. It won't be an offensive explosion, but the Saints make just enough plays to allow their head coach and quarterback to finally put one in the win column against the Ravens.
Prediction: Saints 27, Ravens 20
— 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.