The Playbook: Previewing Saints-Pats, Packers-Ravens, more Week 6 games
New Orleans (5-0) at New England (4-1) — 4:25 p.m. ET, FOX: If you hypothesized before the season that the Saints defense would have the edge over New England’s offense in this game, you’d have received some funny looks. But that’s where we are now. Tom Brady is dealing with injuries and attrition all along his receiver corps, and the formerly historically porous Saints defense has been a revelation since switching coordinators from Steve Spagnuolo to Rob Ryan. Brady currently ranks 19th in Football Outsiders’ DYAR (season-cumulative) efficiency metric, the lowest mark of his career, and the Saints are teeing off on their opponents. Ryan, who worked as New England’s linebackers coach from 2000 through ’03, has always had a way of getting to Brady with his schemes. Last time, it was Ryan’s Dallas Cowboys against the Pats in 2011, and Brady countered with constant no-huddle to keep Ryan’s weird blitzes off the field. The problem now is that Brady’s own receivers may need the time between snaps to get their bearings and remember what they’re supposed to do.
Meanwhile, there’s the always efficient Drew Brees, who is reunited with Sean Payton and has an interesting history of absolutely waxing New England’s defense when he faces it. In three career games against the Pats, Brees has completed 47 passes in 65 attempts for 723 yards, eight touchdowns and no picks. He has a higher quarterback rating (148.3) against New England than against any other team. Small sample size? Yes. Different personnel? Sure. And the Pats’ defense has played very well this season for the most part. But if Brees gets a head of steam going at Gillette Stadium and the seemingly unstoppable Jimmy Graham goes on a roll, watch out. Brady’s team as currently constructed isn’t ready for a shoot-out, and that’s true even if Rob Gronkowski is finally able to make his 2013 season debut.
Payton wouldn’t bite, however, when asked this week if Brady will be an easier matchup than in years past.
“You see everything you’ve seen prior, you see the arm strength, you see the will to win, you see the competitive drive, you see all those things,” the Saints coach said. “I think just like we are a work in progress each week, we’re trying to improve, we feel like we tell our players we’re in a race to get better. It’s either that or you’re going in the other direction, and I’m sure they’re working hard to improve in the areas they feel like they need to just like we are.”
The issue for the Patriots is the Saints are much further along in their progression. – Doug Farrar
Green Bay (2-2) at Baltimore (3-2) — 1 p.m. ET, FOX: Can the Packers shuck their early-season trend? Their first four games have played out like this: loss on the road, win at home, loss on the road, win at home. This is, obviously, a road game, so Green Bay has to get off the schneid away from Lambeau Field if it’s to avoid dropping back below .500.
It’s hard to say which Baltimore team will be awaiting the Packers’ arrival. The defending champs’ last home game, in Week 3 versus Houston, was a blowout victory, paced by stellar defensive and special-teams play. But the Ravens have been tough to pin down in two road games since, losing to Buffalo in a game that saw Joe Flacco throw 50 times before winning at Miami behind 27 rush attempts and a pair of touchdowns from Ray Rice.
There may be more openings through the air than on the ground against Green Bay. That said, both aspects of the Packers’ defense will be stunted some by the absence of linebacker Clay Matthews, who is expected to miss at least a month with a broken thumb. Green Bay went 3-1 without Matthews last season, but it will take a complete effort to make up for his loss again.
The Ravens’ secondary may be the unit that’s really in the spotlight. It has not faced a wide-open attack since Week 1, when Peyton Manning threw for 445 yards in a convincing 49-27 win. Baltimore has stiffened considerably against the pass since then, but slowing Aaron Rodgers and his arsenal of weapons will be a substantial challenge.
For all the early season hand-wringing in Green Bay and Baltimore, the teams are in decent shape to make matching runs. The Packers, with a critical win over Detroit last Sunday, pulled within a half-game of first in the NFC North (now a full game with the Bears’ win Thursday night); the Ravens are tied atop the wide open AFC North, sharing the division lead with Cleveland and Cincinnati.
For Green Bay to keep spinning its momentum forward, though, it will need to break its brief road losing streak … while ending Baltimore’s run of four straight wins at home, dating to last season. — Chris Burke
Jacksonville (0-5) at Denver (5-0) — 4:05 p.m. ET, CBS: The line for this game had Denver as a 27-point favorite as of Thursday morning. In just about any other matchup, this game would be ripe for a Broncos letdown — coming off an emotional win in Dallas, expected to roll at home. However, the Jaguars hardly look capable of keeping pace.
Even the Broncos’ official Twitter feed pointed out the obvious: Jacksonville’s offense (51 points in five games) is no match for Denver’s Peyton Manning-led attack (51 points in Week 5, 46 points per game overall). Chad Henne will get the nod as Jacksonville’s QB with Blaine Gabbert injured. Henne has made 10 starts and won just one game over the past three seasons.
The Jaguars did wake up on offense in a Week 5 loss to St. Louis, mainly thanks to Justin Blackmon’s return from suspension. He took his first reception of the season to the house and finished with 136 yards. Maurice Jones-Drew also showed signs of life, rushing for a season-high 70 yards.
Denver’s defense, up until a late interception by Danny Trevathan, looked mighty vulnerable against Dallas last week. But the return of cornerback Champ Bailey should help, even though Von Miller’s still serving his suspension and both Robert Ayers and Wesley Woodyard have missed practice this week.
Will it matter, though, if the Broncos cough up some points? Maybe to bettors, but the lowest output for Manning’s offense this season? Thirty-seven points, in a Week 3 win over Oakland. It’s hard to envision any team, let alone the 0-5 Jaguars, keeping the Broncos totally in check for 60 minutes. Jacksonville’s defense is the worst in the league against the run, too, so the revitalized Knowshon Moreno might be set up for a monster afternoon. – CB
Tennessee (3-2) at Seattle (4-1) — 4:25 p.m. ET, CBS: Last Sunday, quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick made his first start for the Titans in place of the injured Jake Locker. He did so against Kansas City’s amazing defense, and the results were surprisingly decent — Fitzpatrick completed 21-of-41 passes for 247 yards, two touchdowns and two picks in a 26-17 loss. Not world-beating numbers by any stretch, but not bad for a physically limited guy against a clamp-down defense. And, he rebounded nicely after completing just five passes in 14 attempts for 31 yards in the first half. Plus, Fitzpatrick completed a zero-yard pass to himself, which is nice.
What’s not so nice for Fitzpatrick is he now has to travel to Seattle’s CenturyLink Field to face a Seahawks defense feeling raw about several blown coverages against the Colts last weekend. Andrew Luck picked the Legion of Boom apart late in Indy’s 34-28 win with a series of route combos that took the Seahawks away from their preferred press coverage and had them playing some passive zone stuff instead.
“We’re not backing off,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said of his defense Monday. “I tried to make the point that … they didn’t want to hear it, how good [the Colts] are. They have really, really good players, and good receivers and a great quarterback, and it took them until the fourth quarter…. Our guys, they will be up for the next challenge for sure.”
The Titans offer no such challenges for Seattle’s defense. Kenny Britt has been MIA all season, and Tennessee has just 10 pass plays of 20 yards or more this season — the Titans have allowed 17. Chris Johnson is averaging 3.2 yards per carry. Where they may be able to pull this game out is on defense. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams (remember him?) is running his usual Pandora’s box of schemes, blitzes and fronts, and Seattle’s offensive line has been a relative pushover all season. Marshawn Lynch broke 100 yards for the first time all season against the Colts, though Seattle converted just 2-of-12 third-down chances at Lucas Oil Stadium. Russell Wilson is used to running for his life, and he’s done a great job of it this season, but the Seahawks need more conversion plays at some point. The Titans also have Alterraun Verner, who is absolutely the NFL’s most underrated cornerback. Seattle should win this one, but don’t look at Fitapatrick as a starter and assume that it will be a gimme. – DF