Breaking down Mondays New England Patriots at New Orleans Saints game (8:30 p.m., ESPN)...
1. These Saints are slow starters. New Orleans leads the league in points with 369, putting them on pace for 590, which would top the record-setting 2007 New England Patriots by a single point. And yet they've somehow failed to achieve more than a three-point first quarter lead in all but two games thus far. Cumulatively, they've outscored opponents by just three points (65-62) in that frame. In fact, in their past five contests the Saints have either trailed or been tied with their opponent after 15 minutes, and that includes games against Miami (down 11), Atlanta (down 7) and Carolina (down 14), plus St. Louis and Tampa (tied in each case). And to think, that group's collective record is a lousy 16-34.
So what, exactly, is the problem? Offensively, the Saints run the ball more effectively in the second half, but that is mostly by design. And they take more sacks in the first half (10 vs. 3), but that follows the pass-early/run-late mold.
If we're going to point a finger, let's make it two. On offense Drew Brees needs to cool his opening-half jitters. The logical midseason MVP has thrown seven of his nine interceptions in the first half. The more likely villain rests on defense, especially along a front that has suffered during the recent absence of defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis. In first halves, when teams are still in it and running the ball, opponents are averaging over five yards per carry and have scored nine rushing touchdowns.
This week, a slow start could be particularly devastating against a Patriots team that has outscored opponents 62-10 in the first frames of its past six contests and that leads the league in both first-quarter (71) and second-quarter points (125).
2. But the Patriots cannot finish. Following the fast starts that we just detailed, the Patriots have more often than not struggled to finish off their opponents. They've squandered third-quarter leads in each of their three lossesmost notably a 31-14 lead in the fourth quarter against Indianapolisand last week they let the Jets sneak back within 10 points in the fourth after having previously lead by 24. The Patriots rank 17th and 19th, respectively, in third-quarter (39) and fourth-quarter (55) scoring, part, but not all of which can be attributed to a few blowout wins where Bill Belichick kindly shifted into neutral in the latter parts. If there's any team in the league that can catch up from an early deficit, it's New Orleans.
3. Randy Moss vs. the New Orleans secondary. For all of the good things we've seen and heard about the Saints defensive backfield, they've still allowed 229 passing yards per game, which ranks a respectable but not-at-all mind-blowing 15th in the NFL. Cheers, Gregg Williams, for the turnaround. Now get consistent. It's not reasonable to expect the backfield, including 34-year-old Darren Sharper, to continue bailing out the defense with well-timed interceptions, of which it leads the league with 20. (The Saints projected 32 picks would rank 53rd all-time as a team.)
In particular, the Saints have had trouble locking down top-flight receivers, a category that both Randy Moss and Wes Welker fall into. So far New Orleans has allowed seven different receivers (a group that includes both established stars like Roddy White and rookies like Hakeem Nicks and Brian Hartline) to top 90 yards receiving, plus they conceded two TD grabs to Donnie Avery two weeks ago.
The Saints matchup with Moss this week is especially disconcerting given the history of cornerback Jabari Greer (who'll likely draw the matchup, as long as he's recovered from a groin injury). The former Buffalo Bill faced Moss off and on over two seasons, in 2007 and 08, and allowed three touchdowns in four games. If Moss draws help, then look for Welker to come close to repeating last week's 15-catch, 192-yard effort against the Jets.
Every week, I lend my thoughts on a few particularly startable or sit-worthy players. Here's who's I like in this Week 11 matchup:
Robert Meachem -- He's scored four times in the past three games. Plus, New Orleans may keep it aerial against a defense that has only allowed three rushing TDs all year. To that end, keep Reggie Bush and his healing knee on your bench one more week.
Wes Welker -- Try to name the last coach to have taken the Let's-see-if-Randy-can-beat-us approach. That guy is probably unemployed by now. Welker will benefit once again from Moss doubles, and in a shootout game like this that spells oodles of yards.
Laurence Maroney -- You're one week too late, Maroney owners. The Saints run defense has stunk the past four weeks, but it was much stiffer before Sedrick Ellis got hurt; they never allowed more than 71 yards to a running back in a game that the stud DT finished. And it looks like Ellis (knee) is back this week.
Devery Henderson -- The distribution of balls in New Orleans is getting too unpredictable to deal with. Henderson will have his days, but last week's one-catch performance (for -2 yards, no less) suggests that, for the moment at least, Drew Brees' attentions have moved elsewhere, starting with Meachem. Also important: No team allows fewer yards after the catch than the Patriots, and that's been Henderson's game.
It comes down to this: The Saints were a better team eight weeks ago than they are now. Part of that is injuries; part of it is game-planning since opposing coaches have something to go off every week. And the Patriots have followed the exact opposite trajectory. With rare exception, I've been more impressed every week, as if this team is slowly working its way back to its record form of 2007. And that's saying a lot. There's no shame in losing to Indy by one point, especially given the way it happened (I stand by Belichick who, I think, made the right call), but Sean Payton should be scared about his team's recent efforts, particularly a squeaker two weeks ago against St. Louis. When Belichick said recently, I don't think there's any better team in football than the New Orleans Saints, he was speaking of the past. By day's end, I believe the return to '07 form will be complete, and the Patriots will be victors, 38-27.