History may no longer be at stake, but all eyes will still be on the quarterbacks this afternoon when the New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots meet up at 4:25 p.m. ET on FOX. Drew Bees brings his undefeated Saints into Gillette Stadium while Tom Brady hopes some home cooking can jump-start a Patriots offense that hasn’t exactly lit up the scoreboard.
To that point, Brady’s streak of consecutive games with a touchdown pass ended last week in Cincinnati at 52. If Brady had thrown one against the Bengals, he would have had the chance this afternoon to tie Brees’ record of 54 straight games in front of the home crowd. Instead, NFL fans will just to have “settle” for a matchup of the two of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game.
4 Things to Watch
Is Brady’s Bunch Back?
Before training camp even opened, Tom Brady had to start thinking about life without wide receivers Wes Welker (signed with Denver as free agent) and Brandon Lloyd (released in March), tight ends Rob Gronkowski (back surgery in June) and Aaron Hernandez (released in late June following his arrest for muder and other crimes), and running back Danny Woodhead (signed with San Diego). This quintet represented Brady’s top five receivers from 2012, accounting for a combined total of 338 receptions for 3,984 yards and 29 receiving touchdowns. New England signed free agent Danny Amendola to take Welker’s roster spot, added wide receivers Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce through the draft and signed free agent rookie Kenbrell Thompkins to restock the cupboard. However, the transition has not been without its rough patches, including Amendola getting hurt in Week 1 and missing the next three games. Amendola returned to the lineup last week and is fully expected to be out there again today. At the beginning of this week, it also appeared that Gronkowski would finally be in uniform against New Orleans. However, that initial optimism has dimmed quite a bit and although he is listed as questionable, the team is not expecting Gronkowski to play. So for yet another week, Brady won’t have his full arsenal of pass-catchers, but perhaps just having Amendola available, even if it’s for only a limited number of snaps, will help take some of the load off of the rookies. Without Gronk and getting less than two full games from Amendola, Brady has thrown for 1,211 yards with seven touchdowns and three interceptions through five games. At this point last season, those numbers were 1,450, eight and one. Brady is starting to get his new band together. Now it’s time to find out what sort of music they can make.
Tight End Tango
Although now it’s looking more and more likely that Gronkowski won’t play today, this game will still feature Jimmy Graham, one of the NFL’s most dynamic and dangerous tight ends. How much of an impact have these two had on their respective teams? In 2011, this duo combined for 189 catches, 2,637 yards and 28 touchdowns. Even though Gronk was limited to just 11 games last season because of a broken forearm and other health issues, he and Graham still accounted for a total of 140 grabs for 1,672 yards and 20 scores in 26 games between them. This season, with Gronk sidelined after offseason back surgery, Graham has taken his play to a whole new level. Graham entered Week 6 as the NFL leader in receiving yards with 593 on 37 receptions (16.0 ypc), and he has caught six touchdown passes. He has posted four straight 100-yard games and was named NFL Player of the Month for September, a first for a tight end. When healthy, these two big, physically gifted targets create matchup nightmares for opposing defenses. With Gronkowski missing a lot of practice time early and only participating in a limited basis more recently, it will be interesting to see how prepared the Patriots are to defend Graham, who is similar to Gronkowski in many ways. One thing is for sure, if the Patriots are successful in limiting the damage Graham does, they will be the first team to tame the beast, if you will.
Head Coach Chess Match
Sean Payton has a reputation for being an offensive mastermind. Bill Belichick cut his teeth in the NFL as a defensive coordinator and has three Super Bowl rings as proof of his expertise on that side of the ball. Both have coordinators, but everyone knows who is calling the shots when it comes to the Saints offense and Patriots defense. Payton’s value to his team goes well beyond his play-calling prowess, as evidenced by the Saints’ 5-0 start following a 7-9 showing last season while he was serving a yearlong suspension for his role in the BountyGate scandal. With New England’s offense struggling to find its rhythm and consistency, it’s critical that the Patriots’ defense puts forth its best effort to try and limit the Saints’ offense. This is where the coaching chess match will come to the forefront, as Payton, one of the league’s most creative and aggressive play-callers will go brain-to-brain with Belichick, a master defensive tactician.
Don’t Forget about the Running Game
New Orleans has Drew Brees and New England has Brady, but whichever team is successful running the ball could end up winning this one. For starters, nothing is more effective in opening up the passing game than a productive rushing attack. Not only does it slow down a pass rush or make defensive coordinators more hesitant to blitz, it keeps the defense on its toes and doesn’t allow them to focus entirely on stopping the pass. Second, both the Saints and Patriots have been somewhat susceptible to the rush this season. The Saints (108.6 ypg) are 18th in the league in rushing defense with the Patriots (116.4) a few spots behind them in 23rd. The Patriots have had considerably more success running the ball than the Saints, but that doesn’t mean that Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas can’t pick their spots and make impact plays on the ground when New Orleans has the football. For New England, Stevan Ridley has gotten off to a slow start (3.7 ypc) and he missed last week’s game because of a thigh injury. In light of Ridley’s struggles, the Patriots have shifted to more of a committee approach in their backfield with LeGarrette Blount (leads team with 206 yards) getting most of the work and Brandon Bolden (6.6 ypc) getting an occasional carry. Either team is capable of winning without much assistance from its running game, but a little help on the ground certainly wouldn’t hurt their chances of winding up victorious this afternoon.
Key Matchup: Drew Brees vs. Tom Brady
While they don’t truly go head-to-head against each other, it’s no stretch to say that this is the on-field matchup that will have the most bearing on this game. Brees is second in the league in passing yards (1,722), and fourth in completion rate (69.7 percent) and passer rating (107.4). He has 12 touchdown passes and just four interceptions. Brady’s numbers (56.6 percent completion rate, 1,211-7-3 for a 80.5 passer rating) are not where they have been in seasons past, but his track record and championship-laden resume speak for itself. Both quarterbacks are the engines that run their offense and often times are given the keys to drive it themselves. Both defenses are in the top half of the league rankings in yards allowed and among the top four in points allowed. The keys for each quarterback this afternoon will be executing the right play when the opportunity presents itself, as well as being patient and not try and force the issue. The NFL is a quarterback-driven league and this game features two of the best that have ever played the position. Sit back and enjoy.
Considering Tom Brady is 77-14 in his career at home, the Patriots would figure to be somewhat heavy favorites in this one. However, Drew Brees is not intimidated playing on the road and the Saints’ offense is similar to the Patriots’ in that it presents a number of difficult matchups and a multitude of sets that a defense must prepare for.
That said, this also is not a typical Saints team, as new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has orchestrated a dramatic turnaround for a unit that set a record for most yards allowed in a season in 2012. This defense is well balanced from the line back to the secondary and I believe it will be able to hold up on the road against Brady and company.
The Patriots’ offense is not clicking on all cylinders right now and I don’t see the return of wide receiver Danny Amendola as the lone cure-all to what ails it. While Brady probably will not have Rob Gronkowksi to throw to for a sixth straight game, Brees has his own All-Pro tight end in Jimmy Graham, and I think this connection will continue to cause headaches for the Patriot linebackers and defensive backs trying to cover him. The Saints’ offense does its part and the defense stands tall late, as New Orleans leaves Gillette Stadium the way it entered, undefeated.
New Orleans 27, New England 24