Undefeated Packers face struggling Saints in the Superdome
Drew Brees vs. Aaron Rodgers will always make for a classic showdown, even if the number of remaining faceoffs quickly dwindles. NFL fans are in for a treat on "Sunday Night Football."
The Green Bay Packers have taken an early lead in the race for the NFC North after beating the Vikings and Lions. They have compiled more than 40 points in both games so far. Those include contributions by the defense in both games.
Meanwhile, the New Orleans Saints still look like playoff contenders, even if last week's loss took some wind out of their sails. After jumping out to a 17-7 lead midway through the first quarter in Las Vegas, the Saints imploded. Their defense allowed scores on four straight possessions, then 10 more points in the fourth quarter, and the offense did not score again until fewer than five minutes remained in the game.
Green Bay leads the all-time series, 16-9, although the two teams have split the four games that both Brees and Rodgers started. Maybe we'll be lucky enough to see a rematch in January, but this has the makings of another classic.
Sunday Night Football: Green Bay at New Orleans
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 27 at 8:20 p.m. ET
Spread: Saints -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Can the Saints reduce their number of penalties?
The Saints have been whistled for the most penalty yardage this season (248), and it's not particularly close. They are the only team that has accumulated more than 200 yards so far, and the gap between them and second-place Arizona is larger than the gap between Arizona and sixth-place Cleveland. This, despite being tied for third in the league for number of penalties committed (16).
In the season-opener, the Saints committed six penalties totaling an astounding 119 yards. All six came on defense and resulted in Buccaneers first downs.
The Saints declined further at Las Vegas. They committed 10 penalties for 129 yards. Half of those infractions lead to first downs for the Raiders.
The Packers have thrived without much help from opponents. The Vikings only committed five penalties for 20 yards, although three of those resulted in first downs. The Lions were flagged seven times for 70 yards, with four of those giving the Packers a first down. If the Saints give Green Bay the same amount of free yardage and new downs as they did in the first two contests, they could be in danger of being blown out of the Superdome.
2. Aaron Rodgers vs. the Saints' secondary
Rodgers has shown almost no favoritism when throwing passes this season. At Minnesota, Davante Adams had 14 receptions for 156 yards and two touchdowns while Marquez Valdes-Scantling hauled in 4 passes for 96 yards and a touchdown. Two different players, Aaron Jones and Valdes-Scantling, exceeded 60 receiving yards against Detroit.
The Saints' defensive backs looked bewildered in Las Vegas. Several of them tried to cover Raiders' tight end Darren Waller, yet no one could do so effectively. Derek Carr connected with Waller 12 times for 105 yards and a touchdown.
Can Rodgers make use of his tight ends to burn the Saints as Carr did with Waller? Rodgers has only targeted three different tight ends a total of six times. He completed two passes to Robert Tonyan for 25 yards and one touchdown. He also connected once with Josiah Deguara for 12 yards and another time with Marcedes Lewis for 4. It's been crickets so far for 2019 third-rounder Jace Sternberger.
3. Refocus of the Saints' offense
Last week, the Saints successfully started the game on offense. They scored a field goal then two touchdowns during their first four possessions. An interception late in the first half began a slump during which the Raiders grabbed the lead. Brees' passing attempts led to mixed results — not enough to sustain drives in the second half.
Without All-Pro wide receiver Michael Thomas, Sean Payton must rely more on the ground game. Alvin Kamara has shown himself worthy of carrying the offense's load since he has gained 95 yards and scored three touchdowns on 25 carries. He is also a dependable receiving target with 14 receptions for 146 yards and a touchdown. Latavius Murray, who has 18 rushes for 62 yards, can serve as a battering ram to slow down defensive pressure on Brees. Taysom Hill has run 5 times for 21 yards in addition to his credible threat to pass downfield. Payton must overcome his frequent urge to cast aside the running game as soon as an opponent ties the score or takes the lead.
This matchup features the favorites to win their respective divisions. The result of this contest could likely factor into a head-to-head tiebreaker at the end of the regular season. The loser will probably look back at the outcome in December, realizing that its playoff seeding suffered for dropping this game.
Green Bay is riding high coming into this contest. The Packers are one of only five undefeated NFC teams. They are the one such team that has already won two divisional games and looks like the probable top seed in the NFC playoffs, although it's still early.
New Orleans struggled in the first two games. The team also did so early in the last six seasons. The loss in Las Vegas was uglier than the 10-point margin indicates. Viewers should expect to see an angry home team, motivated by a berating head coach and quarterback determined to start a winning streak.
Prediction: Saints 27, Packers 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.