Saints visit New England for star-studded matchupBy HOWARD ULMAN
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS | October 13,2013AP PHOTO
New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees and the 5-0 Saints lead the NFL in time of possession at (34:37) this season.FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — It loomed as a milestone matchup.
Tom Brady would have a chance to tie Drew Brees’ NFL record of 54 consecutive regular-season games with a touchdown pass. Both teams would go into it without a loss.
That scenario disappeared when New England lost to Cincinnati 13-6. But the game between the Patriots and New Orleans Saints on Sunday still brings together two of the best.
“You talk about one of the most functional organizations that truly know how to win and have a winning formula, you would say the New England Patriots,” Brees said. “I’d like to think that we’re that type of organization, as well.”
Brady matched Brees in the weekly game of praising an opponent.
“They’re one of the best football teams in the league, so it’s going to be a good challenge for us,” he said.
But there have been slipups.
Brady is having one of his worst seasons. And both teams have struggled to score touchdowns in the red zone.
Still, the collective record for these two franchises in 2013 is 9-1.
The Saints were 7-9 last season while coach Sean Payton served a suspension for what the NFL said was his failure to heed a league directive to stop a bounty program administered by former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. Payton’s return has sparked New Orleans (5-0), particularly on offense where it is ranked fourth in the NFL.
“Sean does a real good job of keeping the defense off-balance,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “They really attack pretty much every inch of the field. They run toss plays and screens. They like to get the ball outside. They have a good inside running game. They throw the ball.”
Shockingly, throwing the ball has been a problem for Brady and the Patriots (4-1). They didn’t re-sign their top two wide receivers from last year, Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd. Aaron Hernandez is in jail facing murder charges, and fellow tight end Rob Gronkowski missed the first five games after forearm and back surgeries. He appeared closer to returning Sunday.
New England’s running game also has been inconsistent with injuries to Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen.
“It’s hard for me to comment on someone else’s struggles,” Payton said of the Patriots, who led the NFL in yards and points last year. “Certainly, it’s been a team that’s been very explosive.”
Five things to watch for in Saints-Patriots:
TOP TIGHT ENDS: The Saints and Patriots have probably the NFL’s best tight ends. But only one has played this season.
Jimmy Graham was tied for second with 37 catches after making 10 in New Orleans’ 26-18 win over the Chicago Bears last Sunday.
“Jimmy Graham is as good as anybody we’ve seen all year or will see in the passing game,” Belichick said. “He is fast and quick and is a hard guy to match up to no matter who you put on him.”
So is Gronkowski, and Saints rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro was eager to face him.
“He’s one of the best tight ends in the league, and that’s one of my favorite things to do,” he said, “to just match up and play against the best.”
LONG DRIVES: The Saints lead the league in time of possession at 34:37. So New England needs some long drives to keep the ball away from Brees.
“I think we’ll try to put together any drive at this point to score points. Long, short, it doesn’t matter. We’ve got to score touchdowns,” Brady said. “We’ve got to try and score quickly, methodically, whatever it takes, because they have a good offense.”
The Patriots had one drive of more than 35 yards against the Bengals.
HOLD THAT LINE: Getting into the end zone against these two teams is tough. The Patriots have allowed 14 points per game, second fewest in the NFL, while the Saints have given up an average of 14.6, fourth fewest. New England limited Cincinnati to 13 points without defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, sidelined for the season. New Orleans has won its last three games while safety Roman Harper has been out with a knee injury.
“It gives us a little more swagger that the defense is out there turning the ball over, making big hits, making big plays,” Saints running back Pierre Thomas said.
RYAN RETURNS: Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan faces the team whose linebackers he coached from 2000-03. He brings in a vastly improved defense than the one that set an NFL record for yards allowed last year under Steve Spagnuolo. The Saints have allowed fewer than 20 points in each of their five games.
“He’s got a passion for the game. I think that he’s instilled some confidence in our guys,” Payton said of Ryan. “The other thing is he’s a great staff member, very loyal and hardworking.”
ON THE RECEIVING END: Patriots rookie wide receivers Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson have improved but remain inconsistent. Julian Edelman has been a major contributor with 36 receptions and Danny Amendola had four catches against Cincinnati after missing three games with a groin injury.
Brees has plenty of productive players to throw to besides Graham. Running backs Thomas and Darren Sproles have combined for 54 catches and Marques Colston has 23. Brees “is just commanding everybody and making all the plays,” Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich said.
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