The New Orleans Saints make a rare trip to Nashville to take on the Tennessee Titans on Sunday afternoon. The Saints (5-3) are coming off a painful loss following an exhilarating win, both games against divisional foes, while the Titans (7-2) have the AFC's best record thanks to a five-game winning streak.
Last Sunday, New Orleans trailed Atlanta at home 24-6 with less than 11 minutes remaining before mounting a furious comeback. Three touchdowns on three straight possessions (to go along with a pair of unsuccessful two-point conversions) gave the Saints a one-point lead with 1:01 left. But the defense couldn't prevent Matt Ryan and the Falcons from driving 64 yards in five plays to set up Younghoe Koo's game-winning field goal as time expired.
Meanwhile, Tennessee made the cross-country trek to Los Angeles to play the Rams on "Sunday Night Football" and made themselves right at home in SoFi Stadium. A sizeable underdog headed into their first game without Derrick Henry, the Titans exploded for three touchdowns in the second quarter and never looked back on their way to a 28-16 statement victory. It was Tennessee's defensive line, not Los Angeles', that dominated the proceedings, as the Titans also capitalized on two costly interceptions thrown by Matthew Stafford. The first one set them up right outside the goal line and the second was a pick-six courtesy of Kevin Byard.
New Orleans (5-3) at Tennessee (7-2)
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 14 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Titans -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Can anyone among the Saints consistently catch passes?
Last week, New Orleans' offense suffered from a case of the drops. The Saints had five in the first half alone. Seven players have botched at least one would-be reception this season. Four Saints have a rate of dropped passes per target of 10 percent or higher. With All-Pro wide receiver Michael Thomas sidelined for the rest of the season, who will become a consistent target for Taysom Hill or Trevor Siemian?
Running back Alvin Kamara paces the Saints in several receiving categories. He leads the team in targets (44) and catches (32) and is tied for first in receiving touchdowns (4). He ranks second in receiving yards (310) and is tied for second in receptions for first downs. However, he also has dropped the most passes (five) on the team. But the more pressing concern is that Kamara won't play on Sunday due to a knee injury. The recently acquired Mark Ingram II will take over as the lead back but New Orleans will certainly miss Kamara's presence as both a runner and receiver.
2. Will someone among the Titans fill the void left by Derrick Henry?
Henry is out indefinitely after undergoing surgery to replace the broken bone in his foot he injured early in the Week 8 overtime win at Indianapolis. The team is hopeful that he will be able to return before the season is over, especially with Tennessee currently holding the top seed in the AFC, but for now, the offense must figure out how to succeed without him.
The first game went well largely because the Titans relied on their defense and make the most of their scoring chances in beating the Rams. The running game, however, was not all that productive. Tennesee posted 69 rushing yards on 26 carries (2.7 ypc). The Titans did have two rushing touchdowns, but both were of the one-yard variety. Adrian Peterson, playing in his first game since Week 17 of last season when he was with the Lions, got the most carries (10), but he managed just 21 yards (with a TD) and caught one pass for five yards. D'Onta Foreman, who joined the practice squad in early November and then was promoted to the active roster four days later, led the team in rushing yards (29) on five attempts. Jeremy McNichols (7 att., 29 yds.) also was also involved, with quarterback Ryan Tannehill accounting for the touchdown on the ground.
Now, it should be pointed out that Tennessee was going up against a Rams rush defense that ranks seventh in the NFL (99.6 ypg), but it's not going to get any easier on Sunday. New Orleans leads in this category, giving up 74 yards per game on the ground and only 3.2 yards per carr carry. And the Saints don't have to worry about slowing down the defending two-time rushing champion, who still leads the category by more than 100 yards. Don't forget that the Titans' top two backs right now are a 36-year-old who made his season debut last Sunday and a journeyman who has spent more time on the practice squad the past two seasons than on the active roster.
3. Titans' gimpy receivers vs. Saints' vulnerable secondary
Tennessee’s wide receivers do not appear to be fully functional. Julio Jones is questionable after his hamstring injury flared up again in practice. A.J. Brown is dealing with a knee issue that cost him a game earlier this season and could still be bothering him. With no Henry to lean on, the Titans really need their top receivers to step up.
Injuries have certainly contributed to both players' diminishing returns. Brown has caught 40 passes, which has him tied for 30th in the league. Jones only has 21 receptions and has already missed two games. Brown leads the way with 551 yards (23rd) while Jones is second on the team with 336. Brown has three touchdown catches while Jones has yet to record one. Tannehill has just 11 touchdown passes so far compared to eight interceptions. Tennessee has gotten some production from Chester Rogers (14 rec., 186, TD) and Nick Westbrook-Ikhine (15, 155, 2), but without Henry, this offense will only go as far as Brown and Jones can carry it — and neither appears to be 100 percent right now.
New Orleans can relate to injury woes when it comes to its secondary. Cornerback Ken Crawley was activated earlier this week after spending the entire season on injured reserve. Safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson left in the second quarter of last week's game with a foot injury and has been ruled out for Sunday. The injuries have contributed to the Saints giving up 273.3 passing yards per game (27th), but they have done a decent job of limiting the damage. New Orleans has surrendered 12 touchdown passes to go along with 11 interceptions, which ties the unit for third.
The Saints were a minute and a second away from a monumental comeback and taking the driver's seat in the NFC South. They have already defeated two current divisional leaders (Tampa Bay, Green Bay) in their conference. But they have also flopped against teams with losing records (Panthers, Giants). So how will they fare against the team with the best record in the AFC?
Tennessee is red hot and looked impressive in its road victory over the Rams. But the Titans cannot rely on the same occurrences, such as intercepting passes in consecutive possessions leading to quick touchdowns, to defeat the Saints. They must find a way to run the ball, if only to prevent New Orleans from focusing on pass coverage and coming after Tannehill, who has not needed to put up huge numbers through the air to this point. Even without Kamara, the Saints find a way to come up with the big road victory.
Prediction: Saints 23, Titans 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.