It's hard to call this game "the big one" given the Patriots' storied rivalry with the Colts and the huge playoff-seeding implications that hung in the balance two weeks ago. However, when the Pats roll into the Super Dome on Monday Night, they will undoubtedly lock horns with the best team they will face in the regular season. The undefeated New Orleans Saints are the class of the NFL this season. Unlike that other 10-0 team who's managed to squeak by on good fortune week after week, the Saints are about as talented and balanced as they come. If you look over the 53 man roster, you'd be hard pressed to find a true weakness. They've got an extremely explosive and versatile player in Reggie Bush. They've got the only quarterback in the league who you could legitimately throw in as a third option the Brady/Manning debate. They've got a tremendous young coach, who clearly knows how to lead a football team. Bottom-line, the Saints are a class-act top to bottom. They deserve to be 10-0. If they can win on Monday Night, they'll likely go 16-0, and maybe even make their way to a perfect season and a Super Bowl title.
So is Monday Night's game "the big one". Probably not. When push comes to shove, I'd gladly give up this week's game if it meant they could've held on in Indianapolis. But that's the past. There's no changing it, and there's no point in talking about the "what if's". The only game that matters to the Patriots is their immenent battle with the Saints. Whether you want to label it "the big one" is up to you. The fact of the matter is that it's big, really big. For the Patriots, it's the fourth chance they get to face an undefeated team on the road. Each of their previous three attempt has ended in failure. In each of those games, they thundered into the first half, and came out wimpering in the second. They made mistakes, they blew leads, and they paid the price. The Patriots have won every other game they've played this season. They're 7-3. Had they simply been able to keep their foot on the accellerator, to hold onto their lead, they'd be sitting in perfection right along with the Saints. Like I said, this game is big. It's the fourth and final chance for New England knock off a giant on the road. As fate would have it, Monday's giant just happens to be the biggest one of them all. If the Patriots can somehow find a way to win, it would go a long way in righting their past wrongs. It would put a definitive stamp on their season and immediately elevate them to the status of top contender. Yeah, this game is big.
If you look beyond the hyperbole, though, the Patriots match-up with the Saints matters just as much as their earlier matchup with the 0-6 Buccanneers. A win is a win. You don't get extra credit in the standings for knocking off a 10-0 team. Both are NFC teams, which means the games hold little value in terms of improving tie-breaker status. Where the true significance of this game lies, is in it's effect on the Patriots Week 13 matchup with Miami. The Patriots currently hold a two-game lead over the Dolphins. Assuming Miami takes care of business in Buffalo against the lowly Bills, a loss on Monday night would cut New England's lead to only one game. Suddenly their impending road matchup with the Phins becomes a "must-win" situation. While I'm confident in the Patriots' ability to handle Miami, it's a situation that's best to avoid altogether. Rather than limp into the playoffs, I'd much rather see New England riding high at 13-3 with a bye-week and the #2 seed. Winning in New Orleans allows the Patriots to shift their focus to simply "taking care of business". As we head into December, the weekly games should become less and less about survival, and more and more about gaining momentum and putting yourself in a position to succeed.
1st Down: A second-string secondary. Perhaps the biggest hurdle that the Saints will need to overcome is their lack of depth at cornerback. Starters Tracy Porter and Jabari Greer didn't play in New Orleans' last game against Tampa, and the Saints signed two vets this week in Chris McAlister and Mike McKenzie as an insurance policy if their regulars aren't ready to go. When you're facing the Patriots' vaunted passing attack, the last thing any team needs is a date with Randy Moss and Wes Welker. At worst, the Saints with be throwing two players into coverage that weren't with the team last Sunday. At best, they'll go with two banged-up starters. It's a matchup that's clearly in the Patriots' favor and it's up to Tom Brady and Co. to take advantage of the mis-match. On the turf of the Super Dome, the Patriots should be able to go to an aerial assault and make this game a very high-scoring affair.
2nd Down: Maroney's comes marching in. In order for the Patriots to succeed with the passing game, Lawrence Maroney will have to put forth a solid effort. I would expect the Saints to throw extra protection into the secondary to prevent Moss and Welker from dominating the game. By establishing a solid ground game, Maroney will force New Orleans to go to a more balance look on defense and open up the big plays for #81. Maroney is absolutely vital to the Pats' success. He rebounded well last week from his stinker in Indy, and while I'm still pretty down on him, he's definitely made the leap over the past 5-6 games from "disappointing" to "serviceable". Maroney doesn't have to run all over the Saints, but he does have to play well enough to command their respect. Also, if the Patriots do end up gaining a sizeable lead, Maroney will have to do better at chewing up yards to run the clock. The Patriots' inability to get long drives going in the fourth quarter of both the Denver and Indianpolis games was the ultimate source of their downfall. They absolutlely have to execute in those situations, and the burden to do so, largely falls on the shoulders of Maroney.
3rd Down: Go for the throat. As previously mentioned, the Patriots should have ample opportunities to put points on the board thanks to New Orleans' issues at cornerback. If New England stays true to form and comes out firing in the first half, it's reasonable to expect that they'll be leading going into halftime and possibly the fourth quarter. That being said, it's absolutely critical that the Patriots' offense finds a way to help out their defense as the game comes down to the wire. They simply cannot afford to have another repeat performance of their previous three losses where they failed to convert the single scoring drive would've iced the game. On the flip side, it's also on the Pats' to bend instead of break when the game is on the line. I've been sheltering New England's defense from criticism, pouring most of the blame on their offense for their failure of execute late. While that may have been true in the Jets and Broncos games where the Patriots lead by 10 points or less at the half and were shut out the rest of the game, there's no excuse for the fact that New England's offense gave the defense a 17 point cushion in Indy, which they subsequently blew. Whether you're facing Peyton Manning or Cleo Lemon, there's simply no excuse for allowing three fourth-quarter touchdown drives. Bottom line, it's up to both the offense and the defense to tighten up their second half play and do whatever it takes to prevent the Saints from marching back into the game late.
Patriots 34, New Orleans 20