The Saints will do battle with the Patriots this Sunday in a battle of two of the top coaches in the NFL. Sean Payton will take on Bill Belichick in a series that the Patriots have managed a 10-4 advantage in. Payton has been in New Orleans since 2006, which means he's faced New England a total of 3 times and holds a 1-2 record against the Patriots. Those matchups included the likes of some guy named Tom Brady and some other one named Drew Brees? I wonder if anything ever became of them.
The Saints are retooling their franchise after that guy named Brees rode off into the sunset, while the Patriots are going down untraveled roads with a rookie QB in Mac Jones. Brees is gone, Jameis Winston is in. And so is Taysom Hill. Sometimes. Belichick will have his hands full so let's dive right in.
The Saints are coming
Which Saints are we going to get? Which Patriots are we going to get? Its doubtful the Patriots will be caught "looking ahead" as someone like Skip Bayless might suggest. There's no coaches more in tune with staying focused on what's right in front of you than Bill Belichick and Sean Payton. Sam Darnold tore up the Saints secondary while McCaffery was largely held in check. One week wonder Jameis Winston turned back into a pumpkin this week, throwing for only 111 yards and 2 picks. A wide turnaround from his 5 touchdown performance. So what are we going to get? Against the Patriots secondary? Hopefully the secondary will be prepared for his pass and pray method at QB. Kamara had 8 carries for 5 yards. Gadget player Taysom Hill ran it twice for 16 yards. So when the Saints come marching in, what are they going to look like?
The Kamara Effect
Alvin Kamara is and can be a game changer. He's one of the absolute best coming out of the backfield and when he gets the ball in his hands, he's patient enough to let the play develop in front of him. That being said, a good game plan can neutralize him. He carried 8 times for 5 yards against the Panthers to go with his 4 catches for 25 yards. Forcing the game away from Kamara's hands and into the turnover prone Jameis Winston could be paramount for a game like this. Kamara having a big day doesn't spell disaster, but it definitely means that something went awry in the initial game plan.
Josh McDaniels has been known to call a gadget play every now and again, but the Saints added the formula straight into their regular playbook. Taysom Hill is that guy. He can play QB, RB, WR, and a hybrid TE. As someone who worked hard to get the opportunities he's been given, he won't go unnoticed by Belichick. Just how much are they going to get Hill involved is the question. If Winston turns in another stinker, will a switch to Hill give them any type of spark? Both QBs are at least somewhat mobile, so how do you game plan for both?
It's hard to say that Hill has ever been the game changer that the media has played it out to be, but the kid can play and is worth watching on that Saints side of the ball.
The Patriots once again follow the Panthers in opponents (Panthers also just played the Texans and the Patriots play them right after the Buccaneers), and it makes this part a little more difficult to narrow down. Who are the key players to watch for the Patriots? The game plans will most certainly be different. The Patriots still don't have a Christian McCaffery in the backfield, and they don't have a D.J. Moore spread out wide. That makes it a little bit more difficult to narrow it down.
The rookie faces a stiffer challenge this time around than he did against the Jets, but will the game plan remain the same? Dink and dunk the ball to move it downfield? It could work if the Patriots truly believe their RBs present a significant mismatch with the Saints LBs. With that being said, Sam Darnold of ghost hunting fame, turned in a 300 yard performance with 2 TDs. Could that open the door for Jones to finally start pushing the ball downfield thanks to more aggressive play calling? The top 5 pass catchers in the game between the Saints and Panthers averaged 9.9 yards a catch or more. The Patriots signed Nelson Agholor to stretch the field, eventually that could mean over the top of one. Agholor is far from a D.J. Moore. Kendrick Bourne and Nelson Agholor together probably don't equal a D.J. Moore. Maybe a Robby Anderson. Here's to hoping that Mac Jones precision passing includes some down the field for once.
In a reoccurring theme, Damien Harris is not Christian McCaffery. CMC managed to squeeze out 72 yards rushing to go with his 65 yards receiving. The key stat is that he only averaged 3 yards per carry. Harris and Stevenson both pack more of a punch than McCaffery does, but does that mean that the ground game will see more success? The rotation of the backs plays into their favor. Always keeping the Saints guessing at which back is in there for what reason has been a staple of the Belichick/McDaniels parring. The Panthers gave CMC 24 carries while only one other RB (rookie Chuba Hubbard) saw 8 carries for 10 yards. The RBs, whether successful on the ground or not, will be a big key to the game. Just how much trust is there in Mac Jones to take the offense over when the running game is lacking? It's a question that will be answered in time, and the Saints defense could present that type of challenge.
The Patriots secondary has looked good in the first couple weeks, minus a couple plays here and there, forcing 5 interceptions (4 of which came against the Jets). J.C. Jackson has stepped up his game with Gilmore out, and Devin McCourty has been the anchor of the secondary. Last week it was Zach Wilson and taking advantage of his over-aggressive style of play. This week, it's Jameis Winston. Over-aggressive could be used to describe Winston, owner of the 30 interception season in 2019. That was with ultra-aggressive play style mouthpiece Bruce Arians as his coach in Tampa Bay. Sean Payton snatched him up and let him sit behind a legend in Brees, and learn the playbook that saw Teddy Bridgewater revitalize his career during an injury. All seemed well and good when Winston threw for 5 TDs and no interceptions (with only 148 yards passing) in week 1, but then week 2 happened. The Saints blew out the Packers in week 1, but met that fate from the Panthers in week 2. Jameis threw for a paltry 111 yards with 2 picks. Which Jameis shows up? No Michael Thomas, no Tre'Quan Smith, so will they be able to find anyone to threaten the Patriots secondary? Corey Davis seemed like he would've been able to threaten the secondary, as he had on a couple of occasions, but the Pats secondary held him in check while forcing the previously mentioned 4 interceptions. If the Patriots stop the run game, do the Saints feel comfortable letting Winston throw it to his current slate of receivers against this secondary? The defense will set the tone for the match up. Forcing the ball into Winston's hands and keeping it away from Kamara seems like the best formula.
When the Saints come marching in, the hope is that the Patriots will keep on marching. This game relies on the defenses for both sides. If the Saints stop the Patriots run game, can Mac Jones show that he is the guy? If the Saints stop the pass, can the RBs break through the stingy Saints front line? If the Pats stop the Saints run game, will Winston continue to put the ball in harms way? If they stop the pass, will the run defense continue to be an issue against one of the better all around backs in the NFL?
This is the definition of a swing game. It really could go either way, but trusting the Patriots defense more than Jameis Winston seems like a safer bet. This could be one of those weird games where both defenses are great, but somehow it becomes a shootout. Or it could be Patriots-Rams Super Bowl slugfest in the trenches.
The Verdict: Swing game.
"My gut says Pats 17, Saints 14, but this one is just too close to call definitively."