- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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When the Patriots face the Saints on Monday night, the scoreboard operator could get a workout. The Saints lead the NFL in points per game with 36.9, while the Patriots are third (29.0).
Here is one view of the top five keys and storylines leading up to kickoff:
1. Saints' injury situation at cornerback versus spread formations. The Saints' top three cornerbacks -- Jabari Greer (groin), Tracy Porter (knee) and Randall Gay (hamstring) -- are ailing, and as one NFL scout said last week, "If you're going to play the Patriots, you better have enough corners." Even if Greer, Porter and Gay play, there is a question of how effective they will be. The Patriots like to spread the field, test an opponent's depth at corner and get the ball to top receivers Randy Moss and Wes Welker, who were targeted on 28 of 41 pass attempts last Sunday. This is the game within Monday's game with Tom Brady at the controls.
2. Patriots' offensive line versus Saints' blitz. The Saints have blitzed on 49 percent of opponents' pass plays this season, the second-highest total in the NFL behind the Jets. With a noisy atmosphere expected and the Patriots likely to operate consistently out of the shotgun with the silent snap count, the discipline and mental toughness of the offensive line (11 false starts on the season) will be tested. Furthermore, the Patriots have injury issues at offensive tackle, as rookie left tackle Sebastian Vollmer has not practiced all week because of a head injury (presumably a concussion) and right tackle Nick Kaczur is hobbled with an ankle sprain. That could lead to a new combination on the edges, with veteran Matt Light returning to his starting spot at left tackle after missing five games with a knee injury and Mark LeVoir sliding in at right tackle. Saints ends Will Smith (8½ sacks) and Charles Grant (4½ sacks) will test the tackles.
3. Which Patriots team will show up in the second half? In their three road losses, the Patriots have looked like a different team in the second half, held scoreless against the Jets and Broncos while putting up just 10 points against the Colts. Brady also has looked like a different quarterback. In the first half of those losses, Brady was 40-of-65 for 539 yards with four touchdowns and one interception. In the second half, he was 31-of-57 for 261 yards with just one touchdown and one interception. On the flip side, Saints quarterback Drew Brees is the NFL's top-rated fourth-quarter passer.
4. Two of the best teams in turnover margin collide. Through 10 games, the Patriots ranked second in the NFL in turnover margin (plus-12), while the Saints were third (plus-10). No team has more takeaways than the Saints (29), who are led by ball-hawking safety Darren Sharper, his seven interceptions ranking second in the NFL through 10 games. Meanwhile, only one team had fewer giveaways than the Patriots (10). Something has to give.
5. Patriots' Achilles heel could come back to haunt them. Red zone offense has been an ongoing concern for the Patriots, who rank 24th in touchdown percentage. They have reached the end zone just 21 times in 44 red zone trips, and settling for field goals won't get it done against the prolific Saints offense. The Saints are a tough defense to crack inside the 20-yard line, as they rank fifth in the NFL in limiting foes to 14 touchdowns in 33 red zone trips.
18hBy Jackie MacMullan