Tom Brady is 40 years old. Drew Brees is 38 years old. Geriatric, by NFL standards. However, both of the signal callers in Sunday’s clash have legitimate claims to being top-5 quarterbacks in the NFL. Both are anomalies. Tom Brady emerged from an average college career as a sixth-round pick but became the most successful quarterback of all time, a master manipulator unparalleled in the NFL with his pre-snap abilities and quick release. Drew Brees, all of 6 foot tall, the second shortest starting quarterback in the NFL, and yet consistently puts up gaudy numbers: Super Bowl champion, 2x Offensive Player of the Year – Brees has lead the NFL in passing yards a ridiculous seven times. In his career, Drew Brees is 3-1 against the Patriots.
This game is worth a watch purely to see two legends of the game, two first ballot Hall of Famers. This is the third most productive quarterback of all time against the fourth most productive quarterback of all time. Both teams will probably put up ridiculous passing yards in this game. I could eulogise just how special the pair are for the rest of this preview, but there are 90 other players that will take the field on Sunday, and a host of intriguing story lines that could come out of the game. I would be remiss not to mention how Alex Smith and Andy Reid’s offense tore up the consistently excellent Patriots defense, at least.
New England finding an answer after week 1 defeat
That will concern Bill Belichick. At 0-1, there are easier Week 2 encounters than a trip to the Bayou. For seemingly the first time in the past 15 years, the best head coach in the league was out coached. Reid implemented an exceptional game plan to best the Patriots in every facet, and I advise you to read Nick Dunkeyson’s excellent breakdown of why the Chiefs won. The Patriots have questions. Their receiver group, already shorn of Julian Edelman and Malcom Mitchell, lost Danny Amendola. Former Saint Brandin Cooks and Phillip Dorsett didn’t get open. It shouldn’t matter this week: the Saints secondary has more holes than a colander and is about as leaky. But for a team anointed as a potential undefeated titan, it is concerning.
On the other side of the ball, the retirement of Rob Ninkovich leaves a hole at defensive end, certainly not filled by trading for Kony Ealy, who is now a New York Jet after failing to provide even solidity on the edge. Dont’a Hightower, exemplary base linebacker and nickel defensive end, appears to be out of this game with an injury suffered last week. Without him, the team has two holes to fill, and they struggled to stop Kareem Hunt even with him last week. Their secondary is a good and consistently underrated unit, but needs to integrate Stephon Gilmore in to secure solidity on the backend.
The Saints offense has the potential to put up big numbers
The Saints offense is packed full of playmakers, a host of hazardous halfbacks highlighting how hard the team is to stop both through the air and on the ground. Mark Ingram, Adrian Peterson and rookie Alvin Kamara’s usage will be incredibly interesting in this game: last week Peterson only saw the field nine times, with Ingram the preferred pure runner and Kamara’s receiving skills making him the third down option. Given what Kareem Hunt did last week, expect to see the Saints try to go at the teeth of the Patriots defense early.
With Willie Snead IV suspended for two more games, second-year wideout Michael Thomas is the clear number one option, and his rookie season showed the array of skills the former Ohio State man has. He’s a burner and you should expect a strong showing with plenty of targets early. With big Brandon Coleman, Ted Ginn’s deep ability and solid tight end Coby Fleener, there are a plethora of targets for Brees to look to, along with Kamara out of the backfield. They should have little trouble moving the football, assuming pass protection holds up and Brees has an eternity to find an open receiver down field.
Question marks on defense for New Orleans
Defensively, the Saints are not fun to watch, and gave up big yardage to Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs in the Monday Night Minnesota loss. This is something that is all too familiar for Saints fans. Rookies Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams will improve things somewhat on the backend, but will need time to bed in. At linebacker the team are reliant on rookie Alex Anzalone, A.J. Klein and Craig Robertson, an unimpressive trio for the moment – but with potential to improve as a unit.
The defensive line has the excellent Cameron Jordan, a top-5 pass rusher who doesn’t get enough attention due to the awful defenses he has been a part of. Sheldon Rankins looks set to be the latest undersized productive interior rusher but Nick Fairley’s unfortunate forced retirement has left two big holes in the middle. Dalvin Cook and the Vikings had tremendous success on the ground in week 1 and Belichick and Patriots OC Josh McDaniels will look to utilize a crowded backfield of Rex Burkhead, Mike Gillislee, James White and Dion Lewis. New Orleans needs to stop the run to have any chance of keep this game competitive.
Fear of a blow out?
I fear this game may turn into a one-sided affair. The Patriots and Belichick will be itching to go after a disappointing week one. Brandin Cooks will look to put together a strong revenge game as he abuses a weak and inexperienced secondary. The Saints will have to try and keep pace, and the onus will be on Brees to keep them in the contest. The Patriots have too much defensive talent in the backend and are too well coached for another subpar performance like the Chiefs game. The pass rush and front seven has plenty of question marks but Matt Patricia and Belichick have had 10 days to reflect and make adjustments.
I think the Patriots crush the Saints. I think a shootout is briefly threatened but the Patriots pull away in the second half, winning 45-20, with Brady throwing for in excess of 350 yards and Cooks catching two touchdowns. Let us know your predictions on twitter @TheInsideZone!