The Patriots (4-1) take on the undefeated New Orleans Saints at home this Sunday on Fox at 4:25 pm EST.
Well anyone who was hoping for a surprise 16-0 season from the New England Patriots is now eternally disappointed (of course anyone who thought that was delusional, so this disappointment will be best for them in the long run). Don’t let the score fool you; the Bengals beat up on the Patriots last week. On defense, New England did everything right: take AJ Green out of the passing game, force Andy Dalton to make some mistakes, be their best bend-don’t-break selves. But the offense struggled mightily, as Brady and his receivers didn’t get in sync and the offensive line was eviscerated by Cincinnati’s insane front seven.
That being said…the Patriots were only one score from possibly being 5-0 coming into this week. It doesn’t make New Orleans any less frightening, but it means that we shouldn’t be going crazy and proclaiming these to be end days for the Patriots. And make no mistake: New Orleans is frightening. Drew Brees and Jimmy Graham have been having field days against opposing secondaries, and there’s still receiving threats Darren Sproles and Marques Colston to account for. More bad news? The Saints defense is no longer the sieve of recent years, and Rob Ryan has turned them into a disruptive unit, led by pass rusher Cameron Jordan and surprise rookie Kenny Vaccaro.
The Patriots can still pull out a win. It is possible. Is it likely? Eh.
Here are some things to watch heading into this week:
Key Matchup: Jimmy Graham vs. Who Ever Matches Up With Jimmy Graham
This is a problem. It’s been a problem for every team that New Orleans has faced. Unfortunately, you can’t really pair up a linebacker against Jimmy Graham in pass defense; no matter how athletic or quick Jamie Collins or Dont’a Hightower is, they’re not athletic or quick enough by a long shot. Belichick may opt to double team using one of those linebackers and safety Steve Gregory, but Gregory hasn’t exactly been the model of excellence in this young season.
No, most likely Belichick may just treat Jimmy Graham like a wide receiver, and throw Aqib Talib on him. Talib has been playing out of his mind lately, and did his damndest to contain AJ Green (doing a helluva job if I may say so myself). Talib has 4 interceptions and has shut down Green, Vincent Jackson, and Julio Jones thus far. Jimmy Graham, of course, is an entirely different beast, and limiting the damage done by Brees and the former basketball player may be Talib’s toughest challenge yet.
3 Questions Before Game Time
- What will New England get out of Stevan Ridley?
For the Patriots to have a chance at beating New Orleans, they have to keep Drew Brees off the field. With the inexperience of the Patriots’ receiver and Amendola still getting back up to speed, that means pounding the ball through the run. And if we’ve learned anything, they can’t count on LeGarrette Blount to be the lead back. Even with his fumbling troubles (which may be overblown at this point) Ridley represents the most dynamic rushing option for the Patriots, and hasn’t yet flashed the potential we saw last season. The Saints are giving up a league-worst 5.4 yards-per-carry, that aspect of their defense the least effective. If Ridley can stay solid and handle the workload, the Patriots absolutely have a fighting chance.
2. Can the offensive line bounce back?
After a poor performance against Cincinnati, the Patriots front line needs to play like they did in the first four weeks of the season. Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins tortured Logan Mankins and Nate Solder, and Tom Brady looked visibly frustrated by the hits and disappearing pocket. Rob Ryan will take a page from Rex’s book and throw a bunch of different blitz packages at Brady’s offense. The Saints lead the league in sacks (15), are fourth in forced fumbles (6), and tied for 2nd in interceptions (7), and all that spells out that they pressure the quarterback. If the offensive line can keep the Saints’ blitzers at bay and give Ridley the lanes he needs, then the New England offense will be fine. But if they turn in another performance like last week, this will get ugly quickly.
3. What will Rob Gronkowski’s return mean for the Patriots, if he does return at all?
At this point, Tom Brady will take whatever he can get. While showing potential for the future, Dobson and Thompkins haven’t been enough in sync with Brady to make a big difference thus far. Shane Vereen’s injury has crippled the Patriots’ screen/short passing game, and Brandon Bolden hasn’t exactly been an awe-inspiring replacement. Danny Amendola is just now returning to the field. Julian Edelman has done everything in his power to bail out Brady, but it’s just not enough. While the unit is definitely improving, a return from superstar tight end Rob Gronkowski would give the offense a big boost, especially in the red zone. They don’t even need Gronkowski to be at his athletic peak: just his experience playing with Brady in past seasons is invaluable. His presence will ease Amendola’s return, and open up the field for Dobson and Thompkins to get free on deep routes. Gronkowksi has yet to be officially confirmed to play this week, but all signs point to him finally seeing the field.
Prediction: Saints 27, Patriots 21
The Patriots will absolutely put up a fight. They rarely lose two in a row, and especially not at home. If Gronkowski returns from injury, it will at least be an emotional boost for a beleaguered Patriots offense, and if Josh McDaniels commits to running the ball, they should take the advantage in time of possession. The Pats’ defense should also prove to be a feisty bunch, and I’d hope to see Chandler Jones, Tommy Kelly, and Rob Ninkovich put some licks on Brees.
But that Saints’ offense has a lot of weapons. If you swamp Graham, your secondary is vulnerable to the Saints’ bevy of wide receivers. Sit in the prevent, and Darren Sproles/Pierre Thomas will have a field day receiving passes out of the backfield. Yes Drew Brees plays his best games in domes, but after last week’s 26-18 win over Chicago, you can’t really have the weather as a difference-maker. I think it’s a close game, a good game, and that the Pats will come out feeling better about themselves as a unit. But the Saints are just too rough a matchup to confidently predict a New England win.