Join the conversation every week as former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi and Mike Reiss break down New England's upcoming game. This week, it's the Patriots visiting the Saints on Monday night:
Mike: Hope you had a nice Thanksgiving, Tedy. I'm sure you heard quarterback Tom Brady reference Bill Belichick's comments to the team that this is when the NFL season truly begins -- the Patriots are 52-10 after Thanksgiving since 2001 -- and it doesn't get much bigger than what they'll face Monday night in New Orleans against the 10-0 Saints.
Tedy: On the flip side, the big talk this week is if the Saints can go undefeated, and if it will be a distraction for them. I don't think it will be and one of the main reasons why is that this is a very mature team. You look at the combination of head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees and they set the tone. They say the right things, they carry themselves the right away, and that maturity can help them focus on what's important. And what's important is a big Monday night game against a good New England Patriots team that represents their biggest test of their season to this point.
Mike: Earlier this week, I wrote an opinion-based piece that this is the Patriots' last chance for a signature win that could serve as a springboard for them down the homestretch. Would you buy that line of thinking?
Tedy: I believe that as well and I think it goes back to a few weeks ago when they played the Indianapolis Colts. That gave a true measure of where the Patriots are as a football team. They lost the game, but showed that they deserve mention as one of the best teams in the league. They let the game slip away in the fourth quarter but showed they at least deserve to be in the conversation when it comes to the best teams in the league. The question is this: Can they finish? They have shown they can hang with the best, but can they put it together for four quarters?
Mike: The stats tell the story on that one. The Patriots have scored 196 points in the first half this season, and only 94 in the second half. In their three losses, they were scoreless twice in the second half (Jets, Broncos), and then had 10 points against the Colts.
Tedy: This is out of character for a Bill Belichick-coached team, but at this point of the season, you pretty much are what you are -- you've had all training camp, then September, October and November to develop your identity. And right now the Patriots aren't a second-half team. That can end up being a huge problem in terms of your season being over early. That being said, I think if the Patriots beat the Saints, they have a chance to eliminate that label and the reason why is this: If you solve a problem like that in a big game, against a great team, it can sometimes flip a switch and you can ride that through toward a successful season.
Mike: I thought Brady's comments from Wednesday were strong on this topic. He talked about how the momentum changes can happen so quickly in the NFL and once you lose momentum it's like playing a different team the next time the offense is back on the field. His point was that when you have a chance to bury an opponent, you have to pile it on like they did against the Titans. In the Patriots' three losses, Brady is just 31 of 57 for 261 yards in the second half, and it's unusual to see him barely completing 50 percent of his passes. Speaking of momentum, any thoughts on if the Patriots' win over the Jets can generate some heading into Monday night's game?
Tedy: You're always more confident after a win. When it comes to the Jets, what a difference two months make.
Patriots defense vs. Saints offense
Mike: What do you see from the Saints' offense, and in turn, what areas would you identify as crucial for the Patriots?
Tedy: There are two things I think the Patriots need to do to win, and No. 1 is stop the run. The Saints are a team that uses multiple formations, multiple personnel, multiple receiver sets, so they give you a lot of looks. Those looks can get you confused and thinking that they are a pass-happy team. But they are also a physical running team. What teams forget is that when you have running backs like Pierre Thomas, Mike Bell and Reggie Bush, you utilize those weapons any way you can. Head coach Sean Payton does a great job, where it's easy to think they lean on the pass and forget how physical they can be, how they have that aspect in their game as well. They will run the ball and test you in that area also. If you can't stop the run, it makes it easy on that offense and sets up everything else, specifically the play-action pass, which is what they use to get down the field. So for the Patriots, it will be about getting pre-snap keys and stopping the run first and foremost. The second aspect is that the defensive secondary needs to continue to make big plays. Leigh Bodden had three picks last week, Brandon Meriweather is continuing to get better, and that overall group is going to have an opportunity to make plays that have to be made to win a game like this. The Patriots must win the turnover battle. Brees, as good as he is, will give you opportunities. He tries to thread the needle and get the ball into his wide receivers. He has nine interceptions this year. He's very accurate and trusts that accuracy to get the ball in small windows. Can the Patriots' defensive backs be in position and make the play?
Mike: This leads to my next thought: the X's and O's of the game plan. Against the Colts, they were in nickel personnel (five defensive backs) for all but two snaps, basically daring the Colts to run. I'm not sure they can do that Monday night and hold up in the front seven. On the flip side, I'm not sure they have the best matchups against that passing game in their base 3-4 alignment. With this in mind, I wouldn't be surprised if Bill Belichick and coordinator Dean Pees are cooking up something a bit different this week.
Tedy: I'll tell you right now; this running attack is much more potent than the Colts'. Against the Colts, you can survive with safety Brandon McGowan setting the edge in the running game, being out of position a little bit to defend the passing game. The Saints are physical behind that offensive line and they see their running game as a threat. They will pound you and that could take the Patriots out of those sub sets. Bell runs hard. Thomas runs hard. Bush is explosive. I'd say it again; those running backs are just as big of a threat as Drew Brees and those receivers.
Mike: It was an interesting comparison that Belichick made earlier in the week when he compared Bush to Marshall Faulk, and how tough of a matchup he can be. What do you remember from Super Bowl XXXVI on how the Patriots defended Faulk?
Tedy: We used a defensive end like Willie McGinest to negate his releases into pass routes. Faulk liked to release wide, so instead of rushing the passer, McGinest went straight upfield and hit Faulk when a linebacker was on him in man-to-man coverage. If the Patriots see Bush as a huge threat out of the backfield, look for the same type of thing, maybe with Tully Banta-Cain. On his way to the quarterback, it's called "butching" the running back as he releases. That was our call -- "Butch! Butch!" -- with that linebacker/defensive end offset position.
Mike: A couple of other thoughts on the Saints' offense that caught the eye. "Monday Night Football" analyst Jon Gruden convincingly stated that their guards -- Jahri Evans (right) and Carl Nicks (left) -- are both Pro Bowlers. They are the biggest guards the Patriots will face at that position this season, and it's a huge physical test for the inside linebackers in the 3-4 alignment, Jerod Mayo and Gary Guyton. Also, the size of their top pass-catchers -- receiver Marques Colston (6-foot-4, 225) and tight end Jeremy Shockey (6-5, 251) -- could lead to red zone problems for the Patriots. After two straight weeks of being inactive, this could be a game where the Patriots want Shawn Springs, their biggest cornerback, active.
Tedy: When you look at the Patriots' defense, you've seen the progression. They had to get together as a unit and develop chemistry. Then the next thing they had to do was start making big plays, and they crossed that hurdle. Now the next step is making big plays in big games. That is the next step in the progression of determining whether they are a championship defense. Yes, they made a lot of plays last week but let's be honest -- the New York Jets aren't the New Orleans Saints on Monday night, they aren't an undefeated team on the Monday night stage. So for the Patriots, I look at this game as the second to last step. Can they do it in a huge regular-season game with everyone watching?
Patriots offense vs. Saints defense
Mike: Earlier, you mentioned the importance of winning the turnover battle. That's the first thing that comes to mind when looking at the Saints' defense as their 29 takeaways lead the NFL.
Tedy: The biggest matchup will be Randy Moss and Wes Welker against that banged up secondary. We've talked about it in past weeks this season when the Tennessee Titans were starting rookies in the secondary, when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had unproven players back there, and then the Miami Dolphins had rookie cornerbacks. The Patriots are going to attack that. Over the last week, the Saints signed veteran free agents Chris McAlister and Mike McKenzie, which is a sign that there is some question as to whether their dependable starters -- Jabari Greer (groin) and Tracy Porter (knee) -- will be there. When you have new players in the secondary, there is a greater possibility of more communication issues. Also, coming off the street in the middle of the year, you still need time to get into playing shape. So I think you have to look at how the Saints will match up against Welker and Moss. You can't take both away. If you decide to take Welker away because of the big day he had last week, Moss is going deep. If you decide to take Moss away, we could have a repeat of last week against the Jets, with Welker going wild. I'd just say this; I wouldn't want to play on a defense having to defend those two.
Mike: That brings up an interesting point that an e-mailer to the weekly Patriots mailbag made: We've often heard that Tom Brady's favorite receiver is the open one, but can we really say that any more? In last week's game against the Jets, for example, the combination of Moss and Welker was targeted 28 out of 41 pass attempts. That is an extremely high percentage.
Tedy: I think what you're seeing is that there is no more time for wide receiver development. Earlier in the year, it was Joey Galloway at the No. 3 receiver spot. Now you have Julian Edelman and Isaiah Stanback, but for a variety of reasons -- including injuries -- there hasn't been much consistency there. Now you're at a point where the time for experimentation is over. It's almost December, so where is your money? How is your bread buttered? It's with Moss and Welker. You can use the others as decoys, like we saw against the Jets when Edelman was running guys off, clearing things out for Welker underneath in one-on-one situations. They know what they have to do to win games -- it's Moss and Welker -- and if those two aren't there, Kevin Faulk. Those are the best players. They knew that all along, and they've tried to develop offensive chemistry, but now you're getting into must-win situations and jockeying for possible playoff positioning. It's time to get that AFC East championship hat and T-shirt.
Mike: One other thing I wanted to mention is with Brady. We almost take it for granted now, but he's having a great year -- 261-of-393 for 3,049 yards, with 20 touchdowns and six interceptions. There is no doubt that he's back from the knee surgery.
Tedy: I said it earlier this year; I think we all learned something about how serious a knee injury can be to a quarterback. Peyton Manning struggled early with his knee last year. Carson Palmer had a similar experience. It looks like it took 4-5 games for Tom to finally get back to who he is.
Mike: One last thing on the Patriots in this game, my expectation is that they will use spread formations against the Saints and tax that depth at cornerback, as you mention. With that in mind, my X factor is that offensive line being able to hold up in protection against that pressure-based Saints defense. First-year Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams traditionally likes to bring the heat. I don't think the Patriots are afraid of getting into a shootout with these guys, but they'll need the line to hold up in a noisy atmosphere using the silent snap count. It would help to have right guard Stephen Neal back, if he's healthy enough from the head injury sustained against the Colts.
Tedy: Yes, Williams likes to get after it, but this is a tough game for me to definitively say "this is what he is going to do." If you pressure, you're taking huge chances against two of the best receivers in the NFL -- the slot receiver (Welker) and the deep receiver (Moss). So that gets you to the chess match aspect of things -- Brady versus Williams, Payton versus Belichick, and on and on. It's going to be a spectacular matchup.
Mike: Before wrapping things up, let's touch a bit more on the Saints' defense. We've covered the huge storyline of their injury situation at cornerback. Jonathan Vilma quarterbacks the unit from his middle linebacker spot, although I know some are disappointed that he hasn't risen to more of an elite status. Defensive end Will Smith has 8.5 sacks and has been on a hot streak of late, with six sacks in his past four games. They also have Charles Grant at the other end spot, so they can get after you on the edges. And finally, any talk about the Saints' defense should probably start with safety Darren Sharper, who has an NFC-leading seven interceptions. You played 13 seasons and Sharper is now in his 13th. How impressed are you that he's still playing at such a high level?
Tedy: I've said all year that he deserves to be in the conversation for defensive player of the year in the NFL. His impact on that defense is obvious. It started early in the year when he was making big plays, scoring defensive touchdowns. He started the trend for them. If you want to be special, that's what you have to do, make big plays to win games.
Mike: I think we've covered most of the important angles, so let's put a wrap on this one. The Patriots are returning to the Superdome for the first time since the greatest win in franchise history, Super Bowl XXXVI over the Rams. The Superdome has been good to the Patriots, which is a point I believe owner Robert Kraft made to the players when he spoke to them Wednesday.
Tedy: No doubt, there are good memories that come out of the Superdome, especially for me when you talk about that first Super Bowl victory over the Rams. I'm sure the few players still on the team will feel a little nostalgia when they arrive at the Superdome and remember those good times. The magnitude of the game may be a little less, but it's still a big game. This has been a good combination in the past -- big game, Superdome, New England Patriots. This is a big test for them to keep that going.
Tedy Bruschi played 13 seasons for the New England Patriots and is a member of the franchise's 50th anniversary team. Mike Reiss is the Patriots blogger for ESPNBoston.com. You can reach Mike by leaving a message in his mailbag.