New England Patriots vs. New Orleans Saints: Prediction, preview, pick to win

By The Sports Xchange   |   Sept. 14, 2017 at 11:40 AM
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NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (0-1) AT NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (0-1)

KICKOFF: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, Mercedes-Benz Superdome. TV: CBS, Jim Nantz, Tony Romo, Tracy Wolfson.

SERIES HISTORY: 14th regular-season meeting. Patriots lead series, 9-4. New England has had a long-standing upper hand over New Orleans, including the first five meetings in the series from 1972 to 1986 before the Saints took three in a row. More recently, the games have been quite competitive, with longtime friends Bill Belichick and Sean Payton leading their squads. The Patriots needed a Tom Brady-to-Kenbrell Thompkins 17-yard touchdown pass with five seconds to play to pull off the comeback 30-27 victory in Foxborough in the most recent meeting, in 2013. The last battle in the bayou saw the Saints dispatch the Patriots 38-17 on "Monday Night Football" in 2009, with Drew Brees throwing five touchdown passes and notching a perfect 158.3 passer rating.

KEYS TO THE GAME: Look for Patriots QB Tom Brady to get back to the basics with quick, timely, rhythmic throws against a suspect Saints secondary that starts two rookies. That means some potential slot throws to Chris Hogan, as well as full use of his pass-catching backs in matchups against rookie Alex Anzalone and New Orleans' young linebackers.

Defensively, the personnel will be as interesting as the game plan. It's unlikely safety Jordan Richards will continue to see significant snaps as a linebacker. The health of linebacker Dont'a Hightower (knee) is a question mark, but the Patriots might be in line for a return to some more traditional fronts against the Saints.

The Patriots were victimized by too many big plays in the opener against the Chiefs and that's certainly still a fear against Drew Brees' varied passing attack that thrives indoors. New Orleans struggled in the red zone in Minnesota on opening night and the Patriots will need to be stout in that area even if they can clean up their big-play problems.

The Saints need to run the football consistently well for a variety of reasons. They have to get Brees into manageable third downs, which they didn't do last week, especially with backups starting at both tackle spots. If the Patriots get the Saints into third-and-long and know Brees needs to pass, rookie Ryan Ramczyk and recently re-signed Bryce Harris will have trouble protecting him. An effective run game would also use up time and limit how much of it Brady has to attack New Orleans' defense, which was picked apart in the season opener.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH:

--Patriots WR Brandin Cooks vs. Saints CB De'Vante Harris. The Vikings targeted Harris and had a great deal of success against him last week. There's no reason to think the Patriots won't target Harris to see if he's up to the challenge. Cooks, traded to New England in the offseason, no doubt will be motivated to make big plays against his former team.

--Saints WR Michael Thomas vs. Patriots CBs. The Saints' passing game never got untracked against the Vikings and will have to have a big game if New Orleans is going to beat New England. With No. 2 receiver Willie Snead suspended, Thomas becomes even more important to Drew Brees.

PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Saints RB Alvin Kamara. The rookie had more carries (8) than Adrian Peterson or Mark Ingram (7 each) in the opener and also caught four passes. His run-catch skill-set resembles that of Chiefs rookie Kareem Hunt, who had 246 scrimmage yards and three touchdowns against the Patriots.

FAST FACTS: Patriots RB Mike Gillislee scored a career-high three rushing TDs last week. He was the first player to do that in his debut with the Patriots. He has seven rushing TDs in his past six games. ... Patriots WR Brandin Cooks was the Saints' first-round selection in 2014. In three seasons with New Orleans, he caught 215 passes for 2,861 yards and 20 TDs. He recorded 88 receiving yards in his Patriots debut last week. ... Patriots DE Trey Flowers had two sacks last week and has four multi-sack games since 2016, tied for most in the NFL. ... Saints QB Drew Brees has thrown for 959 yards, 10 TDs and one INT in four career meetings. In his past 15 home games, he is averaging 357.7 passing yards, with 42 TD passes.

PREDICTION: This looks like a classic quarterback duel between the NFL's two senior star QBs. Of course, the team that can help its QB by running it is probably the one that will win. That edge seems to belong to the Patriots.

OUR PICK: Patriots, 30-25.

--Chris Cluff

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