- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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All victories count the same in the standings, but there are a few games each season where the difference between a "win" and "win!" can be so easily distinguished. The New England Patriots have their final chance of the 2009 regular season for the latter variety when they visit the undefeated New Orleans Saints on Monday.
At 7-3, the Patriots are still in search of a signature win, not to mention their first true road win.
This is it.
They are well positioned in the playoff race, and that won't change regardless of what happens Monday night, but the game will more clearly define whether the Patriots are the elite team they have sometimes resembled, or a club that regardless of what happens the rest of the way will head down the homestretch with the following question attached to its resume: Can they win a game they aren't supposed to in a tough environment?
"We need a big win on the road," quarterback Tom Brady said Monday during his regularly scheduled appearance on sports radio WEEI. "We've had three opportunities and we've lost all three. This would be a great one to get."
Four of the Patriots' final six games are on the road -- at New Orleans, Miami, Buffalo and Houston -- but Brady knows that a win over the Saints would be put in a different class than the rest.
Repeating what coach Bill Belichick told players after Sunday's win, Brady called the Saints "probably the best team we've faced so far, right up there with the Colts."
"I don't think there is any better team in football than New Orleans," Belichick said Monday. "They are real good. Indianapolis is pretty good too, leading the league in passing. New Orleans, I would say, is a little more balanced, real good on defense and real good in the kicking game. They have no weaknesses that I can see and they are averaging [36.9] points a game. They beat everybody and they beat a lot of teams pretty soundly."
One key storyline is the health of the Saints' secondary, because as one NFL scout said Monday, "If you're going to play the Patriots, you better have enough corners." The Saints have been banged up at cornerback -- starters Tracy Porter (groin) and Jabari Greer (knee) didn't play Sunday against Tampa Bay -- which has led to the signings of veterans Chris McAlister and Mike McKenzie over the last week.
Part of the Patriots' modus operandi is to spread the field, get the ball to their playmakers and exploit the opponents' depth in the secondary. The Saints, equally as explosive themselves on offense, have received the memo.
All signs point to a fast-break up-tempo shootout.
"It's a big challenge coming up this week in New Orleans," Belichick said. "They're good at everything -- special teams, offense, defense -- at the top of the league in just about every statistical category. It's not a team we are very familiar with, so we're really going to have to do our homework."
The assignment will be a tough one, and it will be telling how the Patriots -- with road losses at the Jets, Broncos and Colts -- respond.
"Say you do make it to the playoffs and you don't get home-field advantage, then that's one thing you're going to have to do -- win on the road," cornerback Leigh Bodden said. "So it's definitely important to get that under your belt."
Each season offers up a few chances to post a defining win, and the Patriots had one in their grasp Nov. 15 in Indianapolis.
Here comes another.
2hDarren Rovell and Dan Rafael