An early look ahead

We haven’t even heard Hank Williams Jr. wail this week, but it can’t be too early to start thinking about next Monday night’s monster game between the Patriots and the Saints. The Saints were already thinking about the Patriots yesterday. Bill Belichick didn’t wait to get out of his opening statement yesterday before he said, “We know we’ve got a big this week down in New Orleans.”

With that in mind, here are three questions for a week of hype that begins … now.

How will the Patriots secondary try to stop Drew Brees?
Now in his ninth NFL season, Drew Brees has faced the Patriots only twice. Both games came before 2006, when he played for the Chargers. Brees beat Bill Belichick and the Patriots in both games, once in 2005* and once in 2002.


*Check out that box score. Remember when the Chargers had LaDanian Tomlinson at the height of his powers, Michael Turner, and Darren Sproles in the same backfield, with Lorenzo Neal blocking? Crazy.

What can we learn from that history? Probably very little. Under Sean Payton, Brees plays in an entirely different system than he did in San Diego, one perfectly suited to him. And while Brees has always been productive, he has become a truly elite quarterback, right there with Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.

With no first-hand experience against this iteration of the Saints, it will be fascinating to watch how Belichick approaches the offense. The Saints have weapons everywhere, especially if Reggie Bush can get healthy. Marques Colston is a clear No. 1 threat. But after that, Lance Moore, Devery Henderson, and Robert Meachem are virtually indistinguishable. They’re all super-fast deep threats who must be accounted for.

Indianapolis is the closest thing the Patriots have seen to the Saints. Against the Colts, the Patriots played predominantly nickel and never used their base defense save for goal line situations. It’s hard to say exactly how Belichick will scheme against Brees, but you can bet it will be something creative.


Are the Saints ready for the Patriots?
For a team 10 games into the regular season, the Saints are relatively untested. They have played only two teams that currently have a winning record, the Eagles in Week 2 and the Giants in Week 6. At 7-3, the Patriots will be the best team, record-wise, the Saints have faced all season.

Their November has not exactly been a strong tune-up for the Patriots. The last three teams the Saints have beaten — Carolina, St. Louis, and Tampa Bay — are a combined 6-24. The Saints smoked the Bucs yesterdays, but their victories over the Panthers and Rams both surprisingly came down to the wire.

(It’s only to fair to point this out: The Patriots have not beaten any teams with a winning record. They are 0-2 against the Colts and Broncos.)

Can the Patriots win on the road?
The Patriots are undefeated at home and in their one game at a neutral site. Heading into Week 12, they have yet to win a true road game. They lost at the Jets in Week 2, at the Broncos in Week 5, and at the Colts in Week 10. The common thread was late-game malfunctions. They didn’t score a point in the second half against the Jets or the Broncos, and they let a 17-point fourth quarter lead slip away against the Colts.

If the Patriots are a Super Bowl-caliber team, they have to prove they can win on the road. There would be no more impressive way to do that than to topple the Saints.

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