Fellow Bloguineer, Andrew Juge, who is the lead editor over at The Saints Nation, emailed me a handful of questions about the Patriots and their upcoming game against New Orleans. The article is posted on his site, but I thought I'd share some of the questions and answers with you. You can read them below and be sure to check out The Saints Nation for some insights into this week's opponent.
1. Buffalo, Jets, Tampa and Falcons. No one saw the Falcons being awful, but they are. Could you have scripted an easier schedule to start the season? How ridiculously fortunate do you feel to have had that schedule with Gronkowski and Amendola both out and on the mend?
Things couldn't have worked out much better for the Patriots schedule-wise early on in this season. Brady and his crew of rookie receivers were able to gain valuable reps together and work through some growing pains, and they were able to win football games in the process. Needless to say, if Denver came knocking in Week 2 instead of the Jets, the Patriots would have been in real trouble. Unfortunately, it looks like our luck has run out this week. We have the 5-0 Saints coming to town with no Vince Wilfork, no Tommy Kelly, no Shane Vereen, and a likely limited Gronk and Amendola.
2. Of course all five teams that have faced the Pats so far have had the benefit of not dealing with Gronk and the Saints won't be afforded the same luxury. Not that it's mattered, the Patriots are 4-1. How much are you realistically expecting from Gronk and Amendola now that they are likely both back semi healthy? Should the Saints be terrified that Gronk is going to come back first game and play like Jimmy Graham has been?
Judging by the way that Danny Amendola was handled in his return last week, it's reasonable to expect that Gronk's snaps will be limited on Sunday. If that's the case, he may only be on the field for about 50% of the offense's plays. In addition, I think it may take him a while to truly feel comfortable back out on the field. When he returned for the first time after his arm injury last season, he clearly wasn't himself. That was only after being out of action for a few weeks, not a few months. As far as Amendola goes, he also clearly wasn't the player in Week 5 that he was in Week 1. The Patriots will desperately need him to become Brady's go-to target again if they have any hope on Sunday.
3. The Pats are 16th in offense, which is absurdly low for them, and 18th in defense. Yet somehow they give up 14 points a game which is 2nd best in the NFL. Now they've faced three inept offenses and played another game in a driving rainstorm. How much of the low scoring is good play, and how much of it is circumstantial? Should I be worried the Saints offense can't light these guys up?
I don't think it's circumstantial at all. Even with the loss of Wilfork, this Patriots' defense is legitimate. For the past 2-3 seasons, even when facing bottom-tier or rookie quarterbacks, opponents were able to throw all over the Pats and rack up massive yards. It was up to Brady and the offense to go out and score 35 points to win the game. This year is nearly a complete 180. The defense is locking teams down and the offense is struggling. I would not expect for the Saints to head into Foxboro and put up 30 points on Sunday against this defense. The big question for me is whether the Patriots team can hang 20 or so on the New Orleans defense. If they can, we might have a game on our hands.
4. Tom Brady lost out on the consecutive games with a TD pass record last week. Brees said in press this week he had already given up assuming the record was gone, but that crazy things happen in the NFL. Any opinion on that?
I thought he had it in the bag as well, but the offense just went out and laid a turd in Cincinnati last week. What some people who didn't watch the game may not have realized is that Brady was about a foot and a half away from keeping his streak alive. Late in the game, he hit Amendola with a pass, who was downed right at the goal line. They say football is a game of inches, and that held true.
5. At the very least, you have to admit it's humorous the NFL scheduled Saints-Pats this week for the storyline of Brady tying Brees against Brees. Now everything is RUINED and we'll have to settle for teams 5-0 and 4-1 battling. How boring.
The the streak was clearly on the schedule-makers minds when they drew this one up. Ultimately, the streak was meaningless, and it was only high-profile because the media made it out to be that way. Before Brees broke the streak recently, I don't think it was a record that was on anyone's radar. I guess you're right and we'll just have to suffer through a battle of two of the best QB's, coaches, and teams in the league with nothing on the line but a victory.
6. Everyone is making this about Brees vs. Brady which is so lame. I know you, and I know you know your football as well as anybody. These are two very good 53 man rosters. But who is the better team in your opinion right now?
It's got to be the Saints right now, no question. The Patriots are holding things together with a glue stick and tin foil at the moment. Their top two interior defensive linemen are out. Gronkowski will probably play, but on a limited basis. Amendola is far from 100% at this point. Stevan Ridley is banged up. Shane Vereen is out. It seems like half the team is made up of undrafted rookies. They are winning football games at the moment because they are playing solid defense and doing just enough on offense. In the end, when the rookie receives start to "get it" more and our core players get healthy, we could debate this. At the moment, I don't know how you can look at what New Orleans has done so far this year, and say they aren't heads and shoulders above the battered Patriots.
7. What are the Patriots' biggest weaknesses right now? If you're the Saints, what are you trying to expose and attack going into this game? What do they have to do to win?
I would start with the gaping hole that is the middle of the defensive line. I'm not even sure that Joe Vellano and Chris Jone's grandmothers know who they are, and yet they will likely be starting next to each other in place of Tommy Kelly and Vince Wilfork. It's possible that the two rookies will step it up and play admirably, but if I'm Sean Payton, I'm hitting them with everything I've got. On the other side of the ball, the key, as always, to stopping Tom Brady is to get him under pressure and rough him up. That's how the Giants won their Super Bowls. Cincinnati did as good a job of this last week as I've seen and they walked away with the victory.
8. The Saints' offense has been the mainstay during the entire Sean Payton era. The defense has been very up and down though. When it's good, they are a title contender. When it's bad, they go 8-8. The Saints have had trouble drafting anyone worth much on defense. But one guy they did draft was Rob Ninkovich. How is he still in the league? He's actually been really good for you guys right? Pretty fitting that we let him get away.
Ninkovich is the kind of player that makes me love the Patriots. They seem to have a knack for taking cast-offs and underdogs and turning them into gems. On paper, there is nothing about Nink that would make you think he's anything special. Yet he's come into the system, worked his tail off, and seen his stock rise from the practice squad to a key cog in the Patriots defense. The man has a special knack for making big plays in big moments. He reminds me a lot of Tedy Bruschi in that regard. I wouldn't beat the Saints up too hard for letting him go. I don't think anyone would have seen this coming for Rob Ninkovich.
9. I'm looking at the Patriots' schedule and it's ridiculously manageable. You've got the Saints, Broncos and at Baltimore. Beyond that is a slew of winnable games for any "decent" team. This may be the weakest Patriots team in years, but with this schedule does it give you more optimism? You could go 12-4, get a 1st round bye and be set up to do some damage in the playoffs.
Going into the season, it seemed like the schedule was really tough. However, both Atlanta and Houston are worse than advertised. Pittsburgh, who is generally a tough for for New England has fallen off big-time. Looking down the road, the Saints and the Broncos are the only two teams they "should" lose to. I'm sure they will stumble at some point against another team, so, yeah, 12-4 or 13-3 is realistic if they take care of business. The key for this season is for the Patriots to get healthy and get Brady and the rookies on the same page. If they can do that, then defense wins championships, and the Patriots have as good of a defense as any team.
10. Final score prediction for the game please?
Going by their history, this is typically the type of game that the Patriots win. They're coming off a bad loss, they're at home, and they are facing a top-tier team on a national stage. Still, I'm having a hard time shaking the image of how inept the offense looked last week, even though they appeared to be making strides against Tampa Bay and Atlanta. I'm also deathly afraid of what the defensive line play will look like given aforementioned injuries. In the end, I just can't predict a win in good conscience, as much as I would like to. Maybe the Patriots play a great game. Maybe the Saints come out flat. I certainly wouldn't be shocked if the Pats won, but my pick is going to be...
New Orleans 24, New England 20