A pair of .500 teams looking for momentum will meet on Sunday when the New Orleans Saints take on the Washington Football Team at FedEx Field.
The Saints (2-2) wasted an 11-point, fourth-quarter lead last weekend against the Giants, spoiling their true home opener of the 2021 season as they fell in overtime 27-21. New Orleans won the time of possession battle (37:31 to 27:35), but New York had a few more big plays and also got the ball first in overtime and marched down the field for the game-winning touchdown.
Washington (2-2) followed the Giants' script for its game in Atlanta. WFT rallied from eight down in the fourth, scoring two touchdowns in the final four minutes to escape with a 34-30 victory.
Washington leads the all-time series with the Saints, 17-10, including an 8-5 advantage at home. However, the Saints won the two most recent matchups, both in New Orleans.
New Orleans (2-2) at Washington (2-2)
Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 10 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Saints -2
Three Things to Watch
1. Will Sean Payton unleash Jameis Winston?
During the Saints' final two possessions in last Sunday's game with the Giants, Winston only attempted three passes. The first one gained 16 yards and a first down. The third one picked up eight yards on third down, leaving them six yards short of the first down and forcing a punt. The other plays during those two drives consisted of seven rushes and two punts. Was Payton focused on bleeding the clock or afraid of Winston relapsing into his propensity for throwing interceptions, as he did in 2019 when he tossed an NFL-high 30 when he was with Tampa Bay?
To be fair, Winston was solid against New York. He completed 74 percent of his passes (17 of 23) for 226 yards and a touchdown and didn't turn the ball over. The completion rate was his highest for a game since Week 12 of the 2018 season. He has eight touchdowns this season compared to just two interceptions, both of those occurring in a forgettable performance (for the entire time) in Week 2 at Carolina.
Winston certainly isn't slinging it all over the field, as he's currently 29th in the league in passing yards (613). But he's also eighth in passer rating (106.4), meaning he's not making a bunch of mistakes. Is it time for Payton to trust Winston and take more chances in play-calling?
2. Can Washington's defense reduce the number of points allowed?
The men in burgundy and gold have allowed 30.5 points per game, which is 30th in the league. This comes a season after finishing second overall in scoring defense (20.6 ppg). Washington has been particularly vulnerable in the second quarter, surrendering 10.8 points on average over the first four games.
New Orleans' offense started the season in high gear but has downshifted since. The Saints' offense rang up 38 points on the Packers. However, they have averaged only 16.3 over their last three games.
One key for Washington would be containing Taysom Hill, especially in the fourth quarter. Payton has inserted Hill more frequently in the final 15 minutes to run out the clock. He has had more carries (seven), rushing yards (38), rushing first downs (four), and touchdowns on the ground (two) in the fourth quarter than in any other. Of course, if Washington's defense does not allow the visitors to hold the lead going into the final 15 minutes, Payton's plan to use Hill as his closer will be scrapped.
3. Will Taylor Heinicke be able to play consistently throughout the game?
Since replacing an injured Ryan Fitzpatrick in the season opener, Heinicke has been up and down. In fact, his performance varies even more when you break it down by quarter. In four games (three starts), Heinicke has got off to slow starts In the first quarter — completing 12 of 17 pass attempts for 96 yards and four first downs, with no interceptions or touchdowns. He's then heated up in the second, connecting on 25 of 34 passes for 330 yards with three touchdowns, an interception, and 13 first downs. Coming out of the locker room for the third quarter, he has cooled down, going 14-for-24 for 173 yards, a touchdown, a pick, and nine first downs. But then he has turned on the afterburners in the final 15 minutes —recording 31 completions on 43 attempts with four scores and a pick while picking up 17 first downs with his arm alone.
Read into that how you want, but it will be interesting to see if any of these trends continue on Sunday against a New Orleans defense that's been particularly vulnerable through the air (283.3 ypg, 26th in NFL), yet has done a good limiting the damage on the scoreboard (17.3 ppg, 5th).
Heinicke has directed Washington to two thrilling victories, one on a field goal on the final play and the other with two touchdowns in less than four minutes. Of course, his crew would not have needed such dramatics if the defense had not allowed 29 and 30 points, respectively. Can Washington's defense clamp down on a New Orleans offense trending in the wrong direction? That would prevent Heinicke and his squad from needing to force the Saints' fuming defense to give up points late in the game once again.
Payton's motivational tactic of placing a yo-yo in each player's locker appears to have backfired. The Saints flopped at home against a winless team despite holding an 11-point lead midway through the fourth quarter. They cannot afford a consecutive underwhelming performance as that would drop them below .500 as they head into their bye week. It seems like the Saints are due for another upswing.
Prediction: Saints 27, Washington 24
— 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.