The weekend has provided us with a clearer picture of how the trek to the playoffs could be for a handful of teams. Now, it's on to the real show: New England vs. New Orleans. Both teams seem poised to capture the AFC East and NFC South, respectively, so this is more about The Big Game than anything else.
"Greatest Show" Part II?
New Orleans ranks 20th in run defense (115.7 per game) and the 12 rushing touchdowns it has allowed is in the lower half of the league. The Patriots are averaging nearly 114 yards rushing per game and they have 11 touchdowns on the ground. New England isn't known for pounding the ball but it could put more emphasis on the run game since New Orleans is vulnerable.
New Orleans should have defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis back after he missed the past four games with a knee injury and that should help fortify the interior. Greer also could return after missing the past two games with a groin injury.
Patriots coach "Bill (Belichick) is going to go after any weakness he's seen on film or that he recognizes once the game starts," another GM said. "With Welker and Moss and some of the other weapons, he'll find a way. Welker is so much to deal with. He's such a tough cover and he does such a great job at catching the ball and getting up field, he could cause a lot of problems. The Patriots tend not to go to the same guy who was hot the game before, though. I don't think Welker is going to have 15 catches like he did last week (for 192 yards against the Jets)."
"(The Saints) have everything on offense. Everything. They are well coached and they've got the quarterback."
New Orleans, behind quarterback Drew Brees, has the no. 1 offense in the NFL. New England is second. Where the Saints could have the advantage in this game -- possibly the decisive edge -- is with their running game. Pierre Thomas and Mike Bell lead a ground attack that averages 154.3 yards per game, which is fifth in the league.
"That ability to run and balance out the offense could really cause problems," a GM said.
The possible return of running back Reggie Bush and how New Orleans uses tight end Jeremy Shockey could also swing things for the Saints. Both cause matchup problems, especially with the abundance of pressure New Orleans' perimeter receivers -- Marques Colston, Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem can put on the secondary. Shockey and Bush move around a lot and could be aligned in formations that put them against a linebacker or safety, one-on-one duels they tend to win.
To limit the potentially overwhelming passing threat, New England will probably come up with a pass rush scheme to keep the mobile Brees in the pocket and limit his sightlines so he makes the majority of his throws between the hash marks.
"Bill (Belichick) almost always comes up with ways to hem in mobile quarterbacks," a GM said. "He can really find ways to control those types of quarterbacks to keep them in the pocket."
The Saints are viewing this game as their most important of the season, and not for the cliché reason of it being crucial because it is the next game out of 16. While New Orleans has been considered the best team in the NFL by virtue of its 10-0 record and its gaudy offensive stats, a win over New England could sway all doubts, even if there are some in its own locker room.
New England, meanwhile, has been in a ton of big games over the years. For the Patriots, playing a tough opponent in a high-stakes game with a lot of fanfare is how things have been and will be until their aura and consistent success starts to wane.
"I have to say this, it is huge that New Orleans is playing this game at home," one GM noted. "That is so big for the Saints in a game like this."