Coming off last Sunday evening's disappointing performance and loss in Cincinnati, the Patriots (4-1) return to Gillette Stadium with an eye on getting back on track and in the win column against the undefeated Saints (5-0). The game is a matchup of two of the elite coaches in the NFL today – Bill Belichick and Sean Payton – as well as two of the truly elite quarterbacks of the era – Tom Brady and Drew Brees. But interestingly given the quarterbacks and recent histories of the two teams, it is worth noting that the defenses from both New Orleans and New England are as responsible for their combined 9-1 starts as their more hyped offensive brethren. It's a battle of big name quarterbacks, underrated defenses and high-profile coaches. Oh, and two first place teams with Super Bowl aspirations. It should be fun in Foxborough as the Saints coming marching in to town. Until the 4:25 Sunday afternoon kickoff, kick your feet up and enjoy this bayou-brewed, Oktoberfest-inspired Patriots vs. Saints Pregame Six-Pack!
- Gronk's status** – Seems like every week we're left to wonder will Rob Gronkowski play or not. Oh, that's because every week we're left to wonder whether Rob Gronkowski will play or not. Officially he's once again listed as questionable to play against the Saints after being limited in practice all week due to his offseason back and left forearm surgeries. Reports last week indicated that Dr. James Andrews has been brought in to make the final call on when Gronkowski is cleared to play. Dr. Jesse Jupiter, who apparently did Gronkowski's most recent forearm surgery, will also consult on the decision. Gronk himself has continued to be noncommittal in his comments with reporters. Put it all together, and no one seems to know when Gronkowski is going to return. What we all know is that the Patriots need him back. The team's offense is tied for 23rd in points scored. The unit is 31st in the red zone. Gronkowski has averaged more than a touchdown per game over the previous two seasons. Even as a decoy and something the opposition has to deal with, Gronkowski's return would have a huge trickledown effect to the rest of the unproven New England options. ESPN reported on Friday that the feeling in New England was less optimistic that Gronkowski would return against the Saints. If he's not out there, that would be a big blow to the Patriots offensive chances of putting up points on a stingy Saints defense and keeping pace with Brees' New Orleans offense.
- Talib on Graham?** – Aqib Talib has arguably been the Patriots MVP through five games. He's matched up with elite opposing wide receivers week after week and more often than not has won the battles. If he's to match up with New Orleans' top weapon in the passing game this week then Talib will have to go one-on-one with 6-7 tight end Jimmy Graham. Graham is tied for second in the NFL with 37 receptions and already has six touchdowns. He's a big-play threat and a playmaker all over the field. He spends most of his time lined up as a receiver out wide. It would seem the most likely option to deal with Graham would be for the Patriots to use a lot of nickel looks – likely with a defensive tackle coming off the field given the injuries to Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly – and match up Talib with Graham. Talib isn't just the Patriots best cover guy, he's also the team's tallest defensive back. It certainly won't be an easy assignment, and it's a different type of challenge. Talib has a chance to not only help the Patriots win on Sunday, he can also increase his growing legend and value in New England. Belichick said this week that teams have thrown all kinds of different players and schemes at Graham, it will be interesting to see exactly what Matt Patricia decides to do against one of the game's brightest young stars.
3. What about the RBs? – As much as Graham is a tough and unique matchup for the Patriots defense, that's also the case with the Saints running backs. After Graham, Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles are Brees' next two favorite targets. Thomas has 28 catches for 166 yards and a pair of touchdowns, although he averages just 5.9 per catch and that includes a 25-yard score. Sproles has 26 catches for 308 yards and a score, for an 11.8-yard average that includes a 48-yard long. That's a major challenge for the Patriots linebacker and safeties. The group struggled a bit with Jacquizz Rodgers in Atlanta a couple weeks ago, and Sproles is even more dangerous. Jerod Mayo and Dont'a Hightower are often tasked with dealing with backs out of the backfield. Sproles in particular presents a huge challenge for those guys and the rest of the pass defense. Not too many teams are led by a tight end and a couple running backs through the air, but that's exactly the case for the Saints. That makes for a unique challenge for the Patriots.
4. Ground it out – The Patriots offense has clearly been struggling at times this season and that bottomed out last week with just six points against the Bengals. The aerial attack is searching to find consistency and productivity. One way to boost that would be to take advantage of a deep stable of running backs and a healthy offensive line to pound things out on the ground. Stevan Ridley returned to practice this week and is questionable after missing last week with a knee injury. The Saints rank 18th in the NFL in rush defense and opponents average 5.4 yards per attempt. New Orleans isn't the stoutest front. This should be a week where Logan Mankins and the offensive line can impose its will. New England has been too inconsistent running the ball, but has been better this season against the smaller, weaker fronts. This could be a chance to get Ridley, LeGarrette Blount and Brandon Bolden going to balance out the attack, take some stress off the passing game and keep Brees' unit on the sidelines.
5. Coaching dual(s) – This game has some pretty interesting battles of coaching wits. Belichick runs the defense in New England and will be trying to outthink his pal Payton, who runs the offense for the Saints. Payton is aggressive and can throw a lot at a defense, so Belichick will have to make some adjustments in a fun meeting of two of the best head coaches in the game today, who just happen to run units on opposite sides of the ball. Beyond that it will be notable to see what New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels throws at first-year Saints defensive boss Rob Ryan. Both units have battle through injuries, but Ryan has been able to piece together a squad that's keeping opponents off the scoreboard and forcing turnovers. Ryan was on Belichick's staff in New England from 2000-2003 as a linebackers coach, winning two Super Bowls with a group of assistants that also included McDaniels. Ryan utilizes a hybrid 3-4 front. He, like all Ryans, is aggressive. He will give McDaniels and Brady plenty to think about and decipher. Cameron Jordan is a versatile player up front who leads the run defense and the pass defense with a team-high four sacks. The Saints also have seven interceptions from seven different players. These teams have a lot of talent on both sides of the ball, but there might be just as much savvy football brainpower on each sideline. As Belichick likes to say none of the coaches with make a tackle or block, but these calculating figures will indeed be key to how the game turns out.
6. Brady, Brees elite QBs – It's not every day that sure-fire Hall of Fame quarterbacks do battle. But that's exactly what we'll see Sunday afternoon at Gillette. While Brady has had his early struggles working with an entirely new cast of weapons, Brees is off to yet another impressive start. Brees is completing just shy of 70-percent of his passes, has 12 touchdowns compared to just four picks and a passer rating of 107.4 that ranks fourth in the NFL at this point. The last time Brees took on the Patriots defense, in New Orleans back in 2009, he threw five touchdown passes and had a perfect 158.3 passer rating. The Patriots defense should be ready to put up more of a fight in this one, but Brees has always done well against the Patriots and is a formidable foe for any defense at any time. Brady had a tough game a week ago in Cincy and usually bounces back from such an effort. But this isn't a usual season and the Saints are a tough defense. The two quarterbacks never take the field at the same time, but like the battle of the coaches the play of these two obviously goes a long way toward the outcome. Brees seems ready for a shootout. His team has topped 30 points just twice this season, but it has scored 26 or more in each of the last three victories. Is Brady ready to put forth the points it may take to keep up with Brees?
Prediction: This is the third of what most pointed to as a tough three-game stretch. New England got the job done in Atlanta and then fell flat against the Bengals. The Patriots return home and hope to rebound. But Brees, Payton and the Saints are on a pretty good roll and are playing well on both sides of the ball. The Saints can score. The Patriots (No. 2 scoring defense) and Saints (No. 4) are both keeping opponents limited on the scoreboard. So the real wild card is the New England offense and the wild card of that unit is Gronkowski. If he plays, the Patriots obviously have a far better chance. Really, though, this is a tough matchup for the New England defense. Graham is a beast. The running backs are a chore. Brees is an accurate, heady passer who'll rarely miss chances. I think the Patriots will run the ball well. I think they'll score more than they did a week ago. The turnover game will be huge. New England must play clean to have a chance to get back in the win column. In the end, I think Brees and the Saints are just going to be a little too much for the Patriots to deal with. I'm looking at something like a 27-16 victory for New Orleans as Brady and the offense continue to struggle to score often enough.