Top storyline: Saints, Pats defenses hope to stand up
When the New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots meet Sunday in Gillette Stadium, the NFL’s most productive offenses since 2006 will be on display.
The Saints have more total yards than any other team in the seven-plus seasons since Sean Payton was hired, and they also rank second in scoring.
On the other hand, the Patriots have scored more points than any other team in that same span and rank second to the Saints in total yards.
As a result, the fourth regular-season meeting between future Hall of Fame quarterbacks Drew Brees and Tom Brady has been a must-see-TV matchup since the NFL released the schedule in April.
It’ll be the first time they’ve met since 2009, when Brees threw five touchdown passes in a convincing win for the Saints, who went on to win Super Bowl XLIV.
While lots of people are expecting a high-scoring affair, which is easy to see considering what they’ve done over the years, the defenses are sitting back — quietly thinking, perhaps, they may have something to say about the game’s outcome.
While the offensive units of the Saints and Patriots usually grab most of the headlines, their defenses have been stingy and tough to score on through the first five games.
The Patriots have allowed just 70 points for a 14.0 average, which ranks second in the league. The Saints have given up three more points and are fourth in the NFL in scoring defense at 14.6 points.
But whether they can slow down Brady and Brees and their friends remains to be seen.
About the Patriots
If you listened to all the consternation coming from the northeastern part of the country this week — particularly the New England states — you’d think the Patriots are winless and headed for the NFL’s version of the draft lottery.
Certainly, a 13-6 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals last Sunday was alarming and disconcerting — especially when you consider the Patriots managed to muster just two field goals as Tom Brady’s streak of 52 games with at least one touchdown pass was snapped.
But here’s the skinny on the Patriots: They’re still led by a future Hall of Fame coach (Bill Belichick) and quarterback (Brady), and they’re 4-1 and in first place in the AFC East — which still makes them better than most of the other teams in the league.
While the offense has struggled, mainly because of a bunch of young and inexperienced wide receivers, you know things are going to be ironed out.
You know it’s probably going to happen; it’s just a matter of when.
Key matchup: Pats QB Tom Brady vs. Saints DBs
By most standards, Tom Brady isn’t having a bad season.
But Brady’s standards — and certainly his expectations — are much higher than most other quarterbacks, which means he’s not going to accept the early season struggles of his offense. The Patriots rank 18th in total offense and 21st in passing offense, numbers they hope will improve against a Saints defense that has been outstanding this season.
But the Saints gave up a season-high 434 total yards and 340 net passing yards in a win at Chicago, which could give Brady the green light to go after the secondary and Malcolm Jenkins — if his young receiving corps can grow up fast and find a way to help out.
X factor: Saints SS Kenny Vaccaro
Rookie Kenny Vaccaro took on a bunch of different roles when the regular season began a month ago, and he hasn’t stopped showing why the Saints made him their first-round draft pick this spring.
Vaccaro has done everything defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has asked of him, and he’s responded with 32 tackles, which ranks third on the team, an interception and a sack.
But he knows his biggest test awaits Sunday against Tom Brady.
Vaccaro has started the past three games at strong safety because of Roman Harper’s knee injury, but he may have to play an even bigger role Sunday against the Patriots, because starting free safety Malcolm Jenkins is questionable after being limited in practice all week with a neck injury.
Increasing his workload is almost impossible, because the hard-hitting Vaccaro has incredibly played all but four snaps in the first five games, but continuing the level of play he has displayed early could be a big help against Brady.
Three and out
1 SOMETHING WILL GIVE: The Patriots have crafted the NFL’s best record in the cozy confines of Gillette Stadium since the start of the 2007 season at 44-6. But they could be challenged by the Saints, who have a league-best 23-11 road mark since 2009 — 2-0 this season.
2 STINGY DEFENSES: The Patriots and Saints have thrown up a wall at their goal lines this year in the first and second quarters, respectively. The Patriots have allowed just three field goals in the opening quarter, while the Saints have yet to give up a point in the second period.
3 RULING THE AFC: With his 38-17 win over the Miami Dolphins on Sept. 30, Saints coach Sean Payton has compiled a 16-9 record against AFC opposition. He’s won 14 of the past 16 matchups with the AFC after starting 2-7 against the other conference.