NFL Preview - New Orleans (5-0) at New England (4-1)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - Drew Brees won't have to worry about Tom Brady closing in on his NFL record streak of consecutive games with a touchdown pass. What will be concerning for the unbeaten New Orleans Saints is the possibility of Brady having his favorite target back.
The New England Patriots could finally have tight end Rob Gronkowski on the field for the first time this season on Sunday when they try to bounce back against the unbeaten New Orleans Saints.
This matchup was shaping up to be a battle of undefeated clubs, but the Pats failed to do their part as they dropped a 13-6 decision to the hosting Cincinnati Bengals last weekend.
New England has won its first four games despite a subpar showing so far on offense, but it finally caught up to the club last weekend. The Patriots went 1-for-12 on third downs and recorded their fewest points since a 21-0 setback at the hands of Miami on Dec. 10, 2006.
Brady was limited to 197 yards on 18-of-38 throwing and was sacked four times while getting picked off once. He also saw his string of consecutive games with a touchdown pass snapped at 52, two shy of Brees' record.
"It just wasn't very good execution," Brady said. "It's a very good defense, I give them a lot of credit. They put a lot of pressure on you in a lot of areas. Our execution needed to be really good (and) it just wasn't."
Brady has played this season without all five of his leading receivers from last year's club: Gronkowski, Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Aaron Hernandez and Danny Woodhead. He instead has tried to make it work with the likes of Julian Edelman, Michael Hoomanawanui and rookies Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson.
Danny Amendola was supposed to be one of Brady's go-to targets this year, but the wide receiver missed three straight games with a groin injury before returning versus the Bengals. He led the club with nine targets, making four catches for 55 yards.
Now there stands a chance that Gronkowski could play for the first time this season. The 24-year-old had an amazing season in 2011, logging 1,327 receiving yards and 18 total touchdowns, and has 55 catches for 790 yards and 11 scores in 11 games last year before breaking his forearm. He returned for the playoffs, but again broke the forearm.
Gronkowski had three surgeries this past offseason due to an infection in his forearm and also had a procedure on his back.
The always-coy head coach of the Patriots Bill Belichick would only confirm the practicing Gronkowski as day-to-day and Brady was also unsure if he would have his services this weekend.
"Whenever that happens, who knows? I feel like I've kind of talked about it a lot the past five weeks. If he is there, he's there. If he's not, he's not. We're going to try to win anyway," noted Brady.
The Saints, meanwhile, have been sparked by the return of head coach Sean Payton from his year-long suspension for "Bountygate" and are off to a 5-0 start for the second time in four years. They are looking to go 6-0 for the third time in club history, joining clubs in 2009 (13-0) and 1991 (7-0).
New Orleans remained perfect with a 26-18 win over Chicago last weekend, with Brees throwing for 288 yards and a pair of touchdown passes to running back Pierre Thomas.
Tight end Jimmy Graham made 10 catches for 135 yards, while Garrett Hartley booted four field goals. The Saints managed to hold the ball for 36 minutes despite just 66 yards on the ground, though that came on 28 rush attempts.
It helped that the Saints did not turn the ball over in a game for the first time this season.
"We knew the formula coming into this game was to remain patient, to run the football effectively, to be very efficient in the passing game and to take care of the football," Brees said, "And we were fortunate to be able to do all those things."
The Saints, who have a bye next weekend, trail in their all-time series with the Patriots 8-4, but did snap a three-game series losing streak with a 38-17 win at home in the last meeting on Nov. 30, 2009. They'll look to remain unbeaten by solving New England again on Sunday.
"Obviously, we're excited about having five wins. Now we're trying to get six. We'll enjoy this win for 24 hours, but we'll go back to the tape because there were some things, especially defensively, some times where I thought we let up," said Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins.
"Little things we did that gave (the Bears) life that we won't be able to do against Tom Brady and a smart Patriot team. We really have to be critical of ourselves this week and not really believe the hype we're going to get. The five wins are just that, five wins."
New England, meanwhile, will look to secure the 210th victory of Belichick's coaching career, which would snap his tie with Chuck Noll for fifth most on the all-time list.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Saints and Patriots have shown in the past they can put up points, but both clubs have also been boosted this season by their scoring defense.
New England has overcome its struggles on offense by ranking second in the NFL with just 14.0 points allowed per game, while New Orleans is fourth at 14.6 and has held opponents to under 20 points in five straight games for the first time since a six-game stretch in 2000.
The Patriots (1,683) and Saints (1,526) are the two highest-scoring NFL teams since 2010, but New England is scoring just 19 points per game this year and is 18th in total offense (343.4 YPG).
New Orleans, meanwhile, is ninth in scoring (26.8 PPG) and Brees has helped the club post the league's second-best passing numbers (326.8 YPG).
Brady, on the other hand, has been held under 230 yards passing in three of his five games this season with seven touchdown passes to 11 sacks.
"Well I mean our job is to go out there and score, so we're not doing a great job of that," said Brady. "The execution has to be a lot better. That's what we're working on. We're trying to improve in all areas. It's frustrating when we don't score, but we're going to try and do better this weekend."
Both teams are in the positive in turnover differential, with the Saints having recorded seven interceptions (from seven different players) and 11 turnovers this season.
"We've talked about turnovers for a long time around here and it's obviously something we preach and practice, but it's also about putting your players in position to make them," said Jenkins, who has an interception and two forced fumbles this year.
New England has forced a turnover in 32 straight games, getting a Brandon Spikes interception and a forced fumble by safety Devin McCourty versus the Bengals that was recovered by linebacker Jerod Mayo.
Now New England will look to get going on offense and Gronkowski's return will help, especially in the red zone. His 1,327 receiving yards in 2011 are a single-season NFL record by a tight end, as were his 18 overall touchdowns that season.
The Pats also ran for just 82 yards versus the Bengals, but could get running back Steven Ridley back in action this weekend after he missed the Bengals game with a knee injury.
However, defensive tackle Tommy Kelly is out with a right knee injury, joining Vince Wilfork on the sidelines that position. Rookies Joe Vellano and Chris Jones are the likely starters at defensive tackle against the Saints and Aaron Neblett was signed this week for depth.
That won't matter much to the Saints, who won't test the Patriots' run defense all that much. Thomas and fellow running back Darren Sproles are more of a contributor in the passing game, which features New Orleans' own Gronkowski in Graham, who is second in the NFL with 37 catches and first among receivers with 593 yards.
"Last week it shifted a little bit more towards Pierre, maybe a little less Darren," said Payton of his backs. "I don't know necessarily that was by design and yet trying to possess the ball and I don't know that we were more conservative, but we were in some more tight end sets and traditional sets with what we were getting defensively."
Graham's six touchdown catches are tied for second in the league and he has an NFL-high 28 catches for first downs.
"He's big, he's fast, he's very athletic; excellent ball skills, especially down the field. He can go up and rebound the ball away from pretty much anybody," Belichick said of Graham. "They throw him a lot of jump ball type plays. He's quick, he's a big target, he's a hard guy to cover, no question."
The Saints have certainly looked like a different club since getting Payton back and the addition of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has made the club dangerous on both sides of the ball.
The Pats were hoping that the talent of Brady alone would help them overcome a lack of playmakers on offense, though having Gronkowski back would certainly open up the field.
Defensive numbers aside, this game could easily develop into a shootout, which would favor Brees over Brady.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 31, Patriots 24
10/10 15:12:37 ET