Two of the NFL's best coaching minds will face off in Foxborough when the New Orleans Saints (1-1) take on the New England Patriots (1-1) on Sunday. Moving on to new starting quarterbacks this season, the first two games have been a roller-coaster ride for each.
The Saints' offense turned in a historically terrible performance at Carolina. They gained just 128 yards, the fewest in Sean Payton's 15-year tenure in New Orleans. The Panthers' offense took advantage of the absence of five key Saints defenders to compile 383 yards and to dominate time of possession, 38:32 to 21:28.
The Patriots traveled to New York, jumping out to a 10-0 lead before the end of the first quarter. New England's defense intercepted rookie Zach Wilson four times while limiting the Jets to two field goals. Mac Jones performed efficiently though not spectacularly, completing 22 of 30 passes for 186 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions.
The Patriots lead the all-time series, 10-4, including a 5-3 edge for games played in New England. The Patriots have won five of the six most recent meetings, although those elite teams with Tom Brady and Drew Brees at the helm are long gone.
New Orleans (1-1) at New England (1-1)
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 26 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Patriots -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Will any of the injured Saints defenders will able to play and put pressure on Mac Jones?
The absence of two Saints defensive linemen (Marcus Davenport and Tanoh Kpassagnon) and three linebackers (Kwon Alexander, Chase Hansen, and Pete Werner) left the defense lacking in the ability to pressure the quarterback last week. Nevertheless, the remaining players managed to sack Sam Darnold twice and hit him three times.
New Orleans may take the field in Week 3 without several defenders — or at least see them limited. Cornerback P.J. Williams, defensive end Payton Turner, cornerback Marshon Lattimore, and safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson are listed as questionable for Sunday.
The Patriots' have been inconsistent in protecting Jones in the early going. In the season opener, the Dolphins hit the rookie quarterback nine times, sacked him once, and forced a fumble from him. Last week, the Jets caused Jones to fumble once and sacked him three times, the only three hits that he took in that game.
2. Who will win the turnover battle?
Since the beginning of last season, the turnover margin has served as a definite indicator of New England's chances of victory. When the Patriots have generated more turnovers than they committed, they are 7-0. When that script is flipped, they are just 1-4. An even margin has not helped New England either, going 0-6 in that scenario.
Turnovers have also factored heavily in the outcomes of New Orleans' games without Drew Brees since 2019. When the Saints won the turnover battle, they won all six times. They won both games with a neutral turnover differential as well. But the three times the Saints had more giveaways than their opponents resulted in two losses and a win.
The frequent criticism leveled at Jameis Winston re-emerged last week. He threw two interceptions, contributing to the Saints' defeat. The question lingers whether his Week 1 performance — five touchdown passes and no interceptions — served as an outlier or proof of him overcoming his penchant for turning the ball over.
3. Can the Saints contain James White?
White has served as the most diversified contributor to the Patriots' offense. A running back, he leads the team in receptions (12) and receiving yards (94). He also ranks second on the squad in both carries (nine) and rushing yards (32).
The Saints have already shown vulnerability to a versatile running back this season. Last week, Christian McCaffrey caught five passes for 65 yards, the second-highest total in both categories for the Panthers. Additionally, he led Carolina in rushing attempts (24) and yards (72).
It would certainly behoove New Orleans' defense to make sure that White is accounted for whenever he's on the field. Although the Saints certainly can't forget about Damien Harris either. Harris is eighth in the NFL in rushing with 162 yards as he has dominated the carries for New England (39 of 54 total rushing attempts) through the first two games.
The Saints crashed and burned at Carolina after a dominating Week 1 performance against Green Bay in Jacksonville, Florida. How much of the debacle against the Panthers was due to them missing the majority of their coaching staff due to COVID-19 protocols?
The Patriots rebounded from a one-point loss at home to a dominating victory on the road. Those results have them 1-1 and tied for the AFC East lead. Although this contest does not carry as much importance as the first two of the season, it will still serve as a measurement of where New England stands in the NFL in general.
These teams are evenly matched. Both are dealing with the addition of a new quarterback. Neither is likely to win if trailing in the turnover margin. The Saints' long road trip will finally end in a nail-biter.
Prediction: Patriots 27, Saints 23
— 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.