The New Orleans Saints will be seeking their 5th straight win in a row this Sunday, when they host the NFC North division opponent Chicago Bears at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Kickoff is slated for 12 noon Central time, and the game will be televised regionally by FOX.
It will be yet another key game for the Saints as far as possible Playoff implications later on at the end of the season, as they face another opponent within their conference. The Saints are (4-2) overall, but have a (4-1) conference record; with their only NFC loss coming at the hands of the Minnesota Vikings back during their season opener.
IF the season were to end today: the Saints — the current division leaders in the NFC South — would be the #4 seed in the conference and would host a Wild Card game at the Superdome.
Coming into this game, the Bears (3-4 overall this season) lead the all-time series history between the two teams by one game, 15-14. However, the Bears are only (2-5) all-time vs. the Saints inside the Superdome.
With all of that in mind, here are 5 "bold' predictions, for this Sunday's contest.
And we'll start at #5, and work our way down to #1 -- beginning with this one.............
#5. FORMER SAINTS DEFENSIVE END AKIEM HICKS RETURNS TO THE SUPERDOME FOR THE FIRST TIME SINCE HE WAS TRADED AWAY BY THE TEAM BACK IN 2015 — AND SACKS DREW BREES TWICE
For the first time since the Saints traded Hicks before the 4th game of the 2015 season to the New England Patriots for back-up tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, Bears defensive end (and now early Defensive Player of the Year candidate) Akiem Hicks makes his return to the Superdome against the team that originally drafted him in the 3rd Round of the 2012 NFL Draft.
In hindsight, it's probably fair to say that the Saints gave up a bit too early on Hicks as he was developing as a young player; but in the Saints' organization's point of view, they felt it was time to move on from a player who had a good 2nd year in 2013 (4 and a ½ sacks) but yet had regressed in 2014 (only 2 sacks) and had only 2 tackles to his credit when he was traded.
In any event, Hicks left New England after the 2015 season and signed in 2016 Free Agency with the Bears; and has blossomed into an All-Pro caliber player in Chicago. On Monday, Hicks told reporters that "I don’t really talk about Drew Brees. Nothing to say about him.” When pressed further on the topic and asked if he was eager to face his old team in the building where he used to play, Hicks replied: "No...no...there’s no extra juice taking on the Saints. Just want to play some good football.”
However, one can suspect that Hicks isn't quite telling the whole truth, and is more than looking forward to facing the Saints on Sunday. In what will be a triumphant return to New Orleans, Hicks will sack Brees twice in this game; and help lead a stout Bears defense (7th in the NFL in total defense, 14th in scoring defense, 18th against the run, 9th against the pass, and hasn't allowed an offensive touchdown in its last 9 quarters) that will give Brees and the Saints offense fits all game long.
#4. SAINTS RB MARK INGRAM IS "IN THE ZONE" — AND RUSHES OVER 100 YARDS FOR A 3rd STRAIGHT GAME
Ever since the Saints traded away veteran back-up Adrian Peterson to the Arizona Cardinals nearly 3 weeks ago now, Saints RB Mark Ingram has been "in the zone"; and has rushed for over 100 yards in successive weeks in wins over the Lions and Packers.
Ingram has seen an uptick in carries since Peterson's departure, and now appears to be more than comfortable once again in his normal lead / #1 RB role that he had prior to Peterson's arrival in 2017 Free Agency. Against the Lions, Ingram had 25 carries for 114 yards and 2 TD's; and then last week had 22 more carries for 105 yards and a TD. That's a 2 week total of 219 yards and 3 TD's since becoming the "lead dog" in the pack once again.
And despite facing that tough Bears defensive Front 7 led by Akiem Hicks and company that as we mentioned is ranked the 7th best defense overall in the NFL, Ingram will break the 100 yard barrier (27 carries, 111 yards and a TD) for the 3rd consecutive game; and thus remaining "in the zone".
#3. FOR THE 2nd STRAIGHT WEEK, THE SAINTS RUN DEFENSE GETS GASHED
The Saints run defense had a rather inglorious start to the game at Green Bay, as they surrendered chunks of yardage to the Packers RB's on the game's opening drive, including an Aaron Jones 46-yard TD run that saw him run untouched into the endzone only 2 minutes into the contest. Jones had a game-high 131 rushing yards, 70 of them on that Packers opening touchdown drive. However to their credit, the Saints tightened up after that, and for the entire game gave up 181 yards total.
Now they get to face a Bears rushing attack that features the dynamic duo of tough-sledding runner and #1 starter Jordan Howard, who is currently ranked 5th overall in the League in rushing yards (560); and the shifty, athletic rookie (and dual-purpose threat) Tarik Cohen — who essentially is the Bears' own version of Saints RB Alvin Kamara. Just like Kamara has done for the Saints, Cohen brings the ability to "take it to the house"on any given play.
True to form, since the Bears have no passing game to speak of with rookie QB Mitchell Trubisky (more on him in a minute), they will rely HEAVILY on the running game in this contest; and at times: the Saints will look powerless to stop it. Howard will rush for 115 yards on 20 carries, and Cohen will rush for 77 yards and score a 45-yard TD as a receiver out of the backfield; while giving the Saints linebackers absolute fits in trying to keep up with him.
#2. IN AN EMBARRASSING MISMATCH OF QB's, DREW BREES THROWS FOR OVER 300 YARDS; WHILE BEARS ROOKIE QB MITCHELL TRUBISKY THROWS FOR LESS THAN A 100
This week, the Saints defense gets a bit of a break at defending the pass; as Bears rookie QB Mitchell Trubisky makes only his 3rd career NFL start ever, and obviously his first time ever at the Superdome. The former University of North Carolina star was the 2nd overall pick of this past April's 2017 NFL Draft; but sadly for Chicago fans, Trubisky hasn't been able to do very much so far.
That's not to say that Trubisky isn't talented and won't be a great QB someday; but rather because the Bears are slowly trying to "break him in" and additionally have no true weapons on offense to speak of at the moment in the passing game (outside of Cohen coming out of the backfield or TE Zach Miller), to help him fully develop while he learns on the job.
In the 3 games COMBINED that he's started (2 of them Bears wins amazingly, thanks to their running game and defense) since taking over the starting job from veteran QB Mike Glennon, Trubisky has a grand total of 348 passing yards, and barely over 100 yards passing each time (128, 113, and 107). In last week's win over Carolina, Trubisky only threw the ball a meager 7 TIMES in the entire game — completing 4 of them.
That trend will continue against what has become a "lock down" Saints secondary, as this time Trubisky fails to crack the 100 yards passing barrier (since the Bears will run the ball A LOT); while his counter-part, Saints QB Drew Brees, will eclipse the 300 yards passing mark for the 3rd time this season.
#1. THE GAME BECOMES A LOW-SCORING "SLUG-FEST" AND IS TIED AT 13-13, AS THE GAME ENTERS INTO THE 4th QUARTER — WHEN SUDDENLY.............
..... when suddenly an opportunistic Bears defense — which has forced 9 turnovers, including 6 in their last two games — takes advantage of a Drew Brees interception (which would be the 3rd straight week that he's thrown an interception) and gets a Jordan Howard 1-yard TD run a few plays later, to take a 20-13 lead in front of a STUNNED sold-out Superdome crowd.
But Brees and the Saints offense, which has been "held in check" by a tough Bears defense all game long; is able to mount a time-consuming drive that nearly eats up 7 whole minutes worth of game clock; before the possession is capped off by a Brees 13-yard TD pass to RB Alvin Kamara to tie the score at 20-20.
The Bears get the ball back with just slightly over 4 minutes left to play; and after they're STUFFED on successive running plays, the Bears have no choice: they HAVE TO convert a 3rd-down-and-long if they hope to get into field goal range for kicker Connor Barth.
Amazingly, Trubisky converts the 3rd down on a pass to tight end Zach Miller, who has gotten open behind Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro for a 32-yard completion and a 1st down inside the Saints 35 yard line with 2:28 remaining. The Bears then run 3 straight running plays to set up Barth, forcing the Saints to use up their remaining 2 time-outs as the clock runs down inside of the 2-minute warning; leaving 1:22 remaining on the game clock.
Barth trots onto the field for a 47-yard attempt, which could give the Bears an unexpected (from Saints fans' point of view) win. But as fate would have it: Barth, who has struggled from beyond 40 yards so far this season (3 misses total), MISSES the field goal attempt wide-right, giving the ball back to Brees and the Saints offense on their own 37-yard line with 1:15 remaining.
Brees — with no time-outs left — gets the Saints past midfield on a 16-yard pass to WR Brandon Coleman; and then after 2 more incompletions sets up a critical 3rd down play; Brees somehow finds a way to fit a pass into a well-covered WR Micheal Thomas, who has Bears CB Kyle Fuller draped all over him, for a 1st down at the Chicago 35-yard line.
Brees and the Saints offense then hurriedly get up to the line of scrimmage to spike the football, leaving precisely 3 SECONDS remaining on the game clock. A hush comes over the Superdome as Saints kicker Wil Lutz comes out to attempt the 52-yard attempt for the win and to avoid overtime.
And Lutz drills the kick right down the middle of the uprights with room to spare — as New Orleans escapes with another hard-fought victory for the 3rd straight week against a valiant NFC North Division opponent, and their 5th straight win overall — sending a happy Superdome crowd out into the streets of NOLA, for a well-deserved Sunday evening celebration............