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.
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.
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.