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NFL Preview - N.Y. Jets (3-0) at New Orleans (3-0)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Ladies and gentlemen, choose your side.
Nickname: "Big Apple" or "Big Easy". Politician: Rudy Giuliani or Huey P. Long. Celebration: New Year's Eve at Times Square or Mardi Gras. Musical Sound: Bruce Springsteen's Stratocaster or Kermit Ruffins' trumpet.
Come Sunday afternoon on the football field, the contrast is no less drastic.
On one side - the perpetual offense of the New Orleans Saints. On the other - the smothering defense of the New York Jets.
Irresistible force...meet immovable object.
And dare we say - deep breath, North Jersey - a Super Bowl preview?
Remarkably, through the initial three weeks of the NFL season, it's not a hard finale to imagine.
In fact, it's the only matchup of unbeatens in the league in Week 4.
Just one game short of a title game berth last year, the returning Saints have beaten down their initial three foes of 2009 through shock and awe - evidenced by league-best team numbers in yards per game and individual league leads taken by quarterback Drew Brees (touchdowns, passer rating) and wide receiver Marques Colston (touchdown catches).
New Orleans has scored a remarkable 120 points thus far, hanging 45 on Detroit and 48 at Philadelphia before being "limited" to 27 in a 20-point win at Buffalo in Week 3.
It's the most points by a team in its first three games since 1968, and fourth-best ever.
New York, meanwhile, has surrendered just 33 points - including just two offensive touchdowns - against a potent Houston/New England/Tennessee trio that won 32 games last season and boasted six offensive players on the AFC's Pro Bowl roster in February.
Not to mention a couple of Patriots named Brady and Moss.
"It's going to be a huge challenge because to be the best you have to beat the best, and right now I think we are two of the hottest teams early on in this season," Saints tackle Jon Stinchcomb said. "I'm sure it's going to be a hard- fought war and something that we are really going to have to prepare for."
The words are no less magnanimous in reverse.
"The thing about (Brees), and we've played him before, (is if) you run a traditional coverage against this guy, he'll carve you up," Jets coach Rex Ryan said. "But I have a lot of confidence in the guys we have on defense. It's going to be a great challenge. You've got to mix things up on them, mix pressures, mix coverages (and) put some traps out there.
"We had to play at Houston. They've got a potent offense. You've got New England and Tennessee back-to-back. Oh, now you've got the Saints. I don't know who we're playing next, maybe a Pro Bowl team after that."
The Saints have started 3-0 twice in this decade, but lost their fourth game in both 2002 and 2006.
Previously, they reached 7-0 in 1991 and 5-0 in 1993.
The Jets got off to a franchise-best 5-0 in 2004 and eventually finished 10-6 before a second-round playoff loss.
They were 4-0 just one other time, in 2000, but wound up 9-7 and missed the postseason.
The all-time series between the Jets and Saints is knotted, 5-5, with New Orleans evening the series by virtue of a 21-19 road victory when the clubs last met, in 2005. The Jets won the previous meeting, taking a 16-9 decision at the Superdome in 2001. The Jets are 3-1 all-time in New Orleans, with their only loss there coming in 1989.
The Jets' Rex Ryan and Saints' Sean Payton will be meeting each other, as well as their counterpart's respective teams, for the first time as head coaches.
WHEN THE JETS HAVE THE BALL
The toast of New York after three professional starts, youngster Mark Sanchez can become the first quarterback in the Super Bowl era to start and win his team's first four games in a season. The USC product scored his first touchdown last week, though he was later chided by the coaching staff for sacrificing his long-term health to make a play. Sanchez has completed at least one TD pass in each game and is 49-for-83 overall, for 606 yards, four scores and two interceptions. On the ground, running back Thomas Jones has four TDs in his last three games against NFC foes and his teams are 31-14 when he reaches 20 carries. Among the receivers, wideout Jerricho Cotchery is averaging 95 yards per game after a season-best 108 last week. Also, tight end Dustin Keller is averaging 15.6 yards per catch. Overall, the Jets gain just 315 yards per game, but are tied for second in the conference with a plus-3 turnover ratio.
It's rivalry time for at least one particular Saints player - linebacker Jonathan Vilma - who played four years with New York and was named AFC Defensive Rookie of the Year and selected to the Pro Bowl during the stint before he was traded by ex-coach Eric Mangini because he didn't fit the team's then-defensive scheme. On the line, end Will Smith will be relied upon to generate a pass rush and disrupt Sanchez. Smith had a sack in the teams' last meeting and posted a sack and his first career interception last week against Buffalo. End Charles Grant leads the team through three games with 1 and 1/2 sacks. In the backfield, veteran safety Darren Sharper - the only player made available by the Saints for a weekly conference call with the New York-area media - leads active NFL players with 57 interceptions. His three INTs so far this season are tied for first in the NFL. As a group, New Orleans has allowed 312.3 total yards per game and the Saints' plus-4 turnover margin is third- best in the NFC.
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
Brees has continued this season pretty much everything he's done since arriving in New Orleans, leading the league with a 118.1 passer rating and nine TD throws through three games. Since joining the Saints in 2006, he leads the NFL with 14,751 passing yards, 97 touchdowns and 25 300-yard games. He's gotten to 300 yards or better in 15 of his last 23 games - a 65.2 percent clip. In the backfield, another former USC star, Reggie Bush, is the only player in franchise history to score on a run, a catch and a punt return. He has 25 touchdowns in his career, 13 on the ground, eight through the air and four on punts. Elsewhere, emerging runner Pierre Thomas gashed a pass- conscious Bills team for 126 yards and two touchdowns last week. He's scored 11 times in his last eight games, and teammate Lynell Hamilton added his first career TD. Through the air, Colston has seven touchdowns in his last six games and tight end Jeremy Shockey has 435 receptions since 2002, most in the league by a tight end. Lastly, big-play wideout Devery Henderson has averaged 21.4 yards per catch for his career and had a 30-yarder for a score against the Jets the last time he faced them.
As mentioned earlier, here's where the contrasts primarily exist. The Jets are second in the league in points allowed per game, trailing only Denver's 5.3 average through three games. And they allow just 256 yards per game, compared to the Saints' 400-plus chain-moving circus. Still, they'll be tested by a versatile Saints squad that capably turned to the running game last week when Brees was held to less than 200 yards in the air at Buffalo. Among the individuals, linebacker David Harris recorded his first career interception last week, picking off Tennessee's Kerry Collins. He leads the team in both tackles (21) and sacks (2) so far this season. Also, safety Eric Smith posted his first INT last week against Collins. Up front, mammoth tackle Kris Jenkins has 19 career sacks against NFC opponents. On special teams, the Jets lead the NFL since 2001 with 11 kick return touchdowns.
Hmmm... maybe Brees? Even against a Jets defense that's harassed Matt Schaub, Tom Brady and Collins through three weeks, riding the hot arm - especially indoors at home - is a no-brainer. And even though he'll be dealing with New York's Darrelle Revis, playing Colston goes hand in hand with his passer. Outside of that, Thomas may experience the same sort of sleeper success that he had last week against a spread-too-thin Bills unit. For the Jets, Leon Washington's practice-time workload has increased this week, which indicates he could be a bigger factor than he's been through three weeks. He and Cotchery are the Jets' best options for points. As for the defenses, big plays are a possibility in wide-open games. Proceed with caution.
As indicated at the start, the matchup has all the contrast you could want. Big offense vs. stout defense. Lots of yards vs. few yards. That said, it may be the lesser factors that decide the winner. A pick-six here, a kick return for a TD there, perhaps a blocked punt or a missed field goal. And because the Jets' gauntlet of Texans/Patriots/Titans has been a bit tougher than the Saints' Lions/Eagles/Bills trio, it says here that they're a little better prepared to face adversity.
They'll face plenty of it here, to be sure, but still come out on top.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Jets 24, Saints 23
10/01 11:41:20 ET