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Looking under the hood: New England Patriots @ New Orleans Saints

Another Sunday gone by.  Another division win in the books.  An NFC opponent this coming Monday.  With Rex "you're dissin' me by playing 60 minutes" Ryan and his silliness behind us, we can take a quick moment to relish the win but we really need to focus on our MNF trip to the Big Easy - land of Dixieland, Madi Gras, and the New Orleans Saints.

Both our NFL South teams, the Colts and the Saints, are undefeated at 10-0.  We know from our 2007 season that this is quite an accomplishment.  In this day of free agency and salary caps (well, sort of) it's incredibly difficult to field a team that can be this successful.  It's also incredibly difficult to field successful teams when the league is doing everything they can to promote (enforce?) parity.

But that's not why I'm here.  I'm here to tell you why our New England Patriots are capable of beating the Saints.

If you believe in statistics and you believe they can tell a story, then the 7-3 Patriots are actually ranked higher than the Saints.  "Hold on a minute", you may say.  " has them first in total offense!"  Very true.  If you're looking at Yds/G, Pts/G, and TotPts, NO comes out on top.  The Saints are a scoring machine and do so on a regular basis.  But the real question is against whom did they score those points?

A cursory look will show you that they are dominating in a weak division.  The NFC South, comprised of NO, Atlanta, TB, and Carolina is anything but burning up the field.  About the only competition they're getting these days is from our very own AFC East and possibly Dallas; they just don't have that tough of a schedule.  But is this really true?  That's where Football Outsiders' stats come in handy.

The weakness of NFL stats is that they're not rationalized against strength of schedule.  NFL stats are simply tickers that tick away without any thought as to how they got their.  Football Outsiders, on the other hand, applies some thought to the process and ranks teams/players based on who they faced (shake n bake is smiling ;-)).  First, lets take a look at Team Efficiency.  Guess who's rated first?  Not the Saints.  Not Indy.  The Patriots are rated first.  Why?  We may have a 7-3 record while those 2 teams are at 10-0, but we've accomplished that record against tougher opponents, among other things.  While we're ranked first both overall and in offense, defense is ranked 9th.  Not to worry too much as NO is ranked 7th; that's not by that wide a margin.

But all the statistics in the world can't predict how a team will play on any given Sunday, how they'll "get up" for the game.  Remember, NO is itching to hang on to their undefeated record and we're playing them in New Orleans.  NO also seems to finish games better.  That is, score points in the second half.  We've struggled with this throughout the season; the Patriots come in strong in the first half and seem to go into prevent mode to end the game.  It's like a different team from half to half.

Saints fans, like their players, are up for this game.  They want to topple the "Team of the Decade" in decisive fashion.  But they arguably haven't  faced an opponent as strong as New England.  This is going to be an excellent game and it can't come soon enough.