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NFL Preview - New Orleans (4-0) at Chicago (3-1)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - There now seems to be three certainties in life: death, taxes and Drew Brees passing for more than 300 yards.
Brees will try to move the New Orleans Saints to 5-0 Sunday, when then they make a stop in the Windy City for a matchup with the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. The Saints are 4-0 for the fourth time in franchise history and last opened a season with five straight wins in 2009, when a 13-0 mark propelled them to a title in Super Bowl XLIV.
The Saints remained one of the few unbeaten teams around the league with Monday night's 38-17 victory over the Miami Dolphins at the Superdome and Brees engineered a 465-yard attack on the visitors by completing a season-high 30 passes on 39 attempts for a season-best 413 yards and four touchdowns. He did not throw an interception for the first time in 2013 and the four TD passes were a season-high.
Brees, who posted a 144.5 QB rating, was named NFC Offensive Player of the Week for his effort one game after teammate and tight end Jimmy Graham took home the honor. Since joining the Saints in 2006, Brees has won 15 Player of Week Awards, which is second most in the NFL (Tom Brady, 16). Brees has been keeping up with Peyton Manning numbers-wise and is second in passing yards (1,434), passing yards per game (358.3) and passing yards per attempt (8.64). He is also third with 10 TD passes and fourth in completions with 111 and completion percentage at 66.9.
He has thrown for 300-plus yards in nine straight games and 200 or more yards in 35 games in a row. Brees has passed for 300 or more yards 71 times in his career, while Manning has the record with 76. Brees' 10 career 400-yard performances rank second behind Hall of Famer Dan Marino's 13 games and he has completed at least 20 passes in 55 straight games.
For how well the Saints are playing, head coach Sean Payton believes there's plenty of room to improve.
"We all try to be, as coaches, very critical of ourselves, just like we would be of our players. I don't know that there's ever any complete satisfaction. It's not like a Snickers bar," Payton said. "I think you're always looking to improve. I think the key is what's happening in here Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday in preparation. I think that makes for a smoother operation for gameday. I think it's the preparation by players, coaches, everyone being on the same page and operating efficiently."
Payton's offense has been operating like a well-oiled machine and sits second in passing yards (338.2), fourth in total yards (419.5) fifth in touchdowns (12) and sixth in points scored (27.0). The Saints have scored 69 points in the last two weeks and seem to be running away with the NFC South, as the defending division-champion Atlanta Falcons sport a 1-3 record.
Saints wide receiver Marques Colston was asked why the offense has been so dominant this season.
"The obvious, the last two games we have been able to put some more points on the board, which is a plus for us but we still feel like we are leaving a lot of plays on the field, especially in the red zone," Colston said. "It is just something that we like we can clean up the efficiency down there and make us even better on offense."
That should strike fear into opposing defenses because not only does Brees have to be accounted for by the front line and secondary, but multi-purpose back Darren Sproles and Graham are major weapons. The pint-sized Sproles had both a rushing score and a receiving touchdown in Monday's win, finishing with 114 yards on seven catches and 28 yards on four rushes.
"He is a real smart player and when he ends up open in zones or doing the right thing in man, it is not really a surprise," Payton said of Sproles beating coverage and giving the Saints a chance to score.
Graham is second among tight ends with 27 receptions, but first in yards per game with 114.5 and first in TD catches (6). Graham has racked up 100-plus yards receiving in each of the past three games and two touchdowns in each of the previous two for the Saints, who will play two straight and three of their next four games away from the Crescent City.
Chicago was hoping to be undefeated for Sunday's meeting with New Orleans, but was handed a 40-32 loss by the Detroit Lions. The Bears squeezed by in the first two weeks of the season and hammered Pittsburgh 40-23 in Week 3. However, the Lions roared early and often this past weekend and stormed out to a 30-10 advantage by the end of the second quarter. It was even 40-16 at one point.
The Bears made it closer than it appeared with 16 points in the fourth quarter and quarterback Jay Cutler worked his right arm to the tune of 27-of-47 passing for 317 yards, two touchdowns, a season-worst three interceptions and a lost fumble. Despite a 417-yard output on offense, the Bears couldn't do enough on defense to tame the Lions and four turnovers didn't help.
"You can't have four turnovers on offense, give our defense a short field and expect to be able to stop people," Bears first-year head coach Marc Trestman said afterward.
Trestman was asked if Cutler was forcing his throws and said it was more mechanics that marred his QB's afternoon.
"I don't think they were about decisions," Trestman said. "I thought the first throw was right where it had to be. I thought the safety made a very good play. The second throw was an underthrow. He just didn't get his feet set. The third one he scrambled to his right and threw the ball down the middle and just didn't set his feet and the ball went high.
"We can't turn the ball over; we know that. But it really wasn't about decision-making. I think it as more about the fundamentals of finishing two throws, one underthrown and one high."
Cutler completed 67.3 percent of his passes for 693 yards with six touchdowns, two interceptions and a 94.2 passer rating in the first three weeks and found it tough sledding against the Lions.
Trestman has faith in Cutler and is hopeful he will make the "corrections and move forward." Cutler has thrown three or more interceptions in a game seven times as a member of the Bears and faces a decent New Orleans defense, which is allowing just 192.2 passing yards per game and 304.5 total yards. The Saints' defense has improved vastly from last season, when coaches were shifted around following the bounty scandal.
The Bears, who will play the first of two home games in five days and rank third in the NFL in points per game (31.8), are now tied with Detroit atop the NFC North.
Chicago owns a 15-12 edge over the Saints and a 13-12 record in the regular season. The home team has won five of the last six contests in the series overall, while New Orleans won the last meeting on Sept. 18, 2011 by a 30-13 score at the Superdome. In two career starts against the Bears, Brees has thrown for 871 yards with eight touchdown passes against five picks.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Bears couldn't find a way to stop the Lions, especially running back Reggie Bush, and were gashed for more than 400 yards on defense. Now, the Saints come into Soldier Field with a multi-purpose back of their own in Sproles, who may want to take a peek at Bush's highlights from Sunday.
Bush caught four passes for 34 yards and did even more damage on the ground, rushing for 139 yards and a score on 18 carries. Bush's top play was a 37-yard touchdown run late in the first half. Missed tackles and opportunities is what ultimately brought the Bears down.
"Probably the most disappointing part of watching the film was that a lot of their big runs came against eight-man fronts," Bears linebacker Lance Briggs said. "We weren't even in cover-two.
"When you talk about an eight-man front, it means that somebody wasn't in their gap or something happened for somebody to not be in their gap."
Trestman is hopeful that will improve.
"We're going to go back to work on it and just continue to work through it," he said. "We didn't expect to be the best tackling team at the end of Week 4, but we've got to get better as we move along and we're going to do that."
The Bears were without defensive tackle Henry Melton because of a torn ACL, so Nate Collins and Landon Cohen rotated along the front. New Orleans isn't a run-first team, but the Bears still have to be ready. Bears veteran defensive end Julius Peppers had his first sack of the season and Chicago's only sack of last week's game, while Brees was sacked twice Monday night.
Chicago has an advantage in creating turnovers and is tops in takeaways (14).
Cutler and the Bears' defense are hoping a full week of practice cures what is ailing them against a New Orleans team still trying to stay undefeated.
Whether it's on grass or turf, indoors or outdoors, the Saints will come to play and it will be Brees leading them. While Cutler boasts decent numbers in two career starts against the Saints (508 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT), Brees has too many weapons and the Bears will have trouble for a second straight week.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 26, Bears 21
10/03 14:49:39 ET