Patriots stand in way of Saints' perfection
The New Orleans Saints' bid for a 16-0 regular season is about to face its toughest test yet, from the only team in NFL history to accomplish the feat.
The high-powered Saints put their perfect record on the line Monday night in the Superdome against a visiting New England Patriots club that nearly knocked off the league's other unbeaten two weeks ago.
The Saints have steamrolled through the league while winning their first 10 games, averaging 36.9 points behind quarterback Drew Brees and a dynamic offence that's seen 12 different players score touchdowns.
Such a run might seem unprecedented if it hadn't been done even better two short years ago. The 2007 Patriots also opened 10-0 while averaging an almost unfathomable 41.1 points.
They went on to achieve the NFL's only perfect 16-game regular season, though their run ultimately ended with bitter disappointment and a 17-14 Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants.
While the Patriots completed their unbeaten regular season, they also provided a cautionary tale on how difficult that feat is to achieve.
The Patriots blew out their first 10 opponents by an average of 24.4 points, but that margin dwindled to 10.2 over the final six weeks with three of those contests decided by only a field goal.
A similar struggle could be in store for this year's Saints, who have taken advantage of opponents with a combined 37-63 record but must face New England (7-3) and NFC East-leading Dallas before season's end.
"We can learn a little bit from them and what happened to them and know you can't take any game lightly," said Saints running back Reggie Bush, who expects to play Monday after sitting out last week's 38-7 win at Tampa Bay due to swelling in his left knee.
"Any given Sunday you can be beat by any team no matter what the record is. We're finding ways to win and no matter how much you win by or how [little] you win by, a win is a win in this league.
"Even the worst team in the league has great all-star players."
The Patriots have more great players than most, especially on offence. Tom Brady has hit his stride after missing nearly all of last season due to knee surgery, exceeding 300 passing yards in each of his last five games while throwing for 14 touchdowns in that span.
While Randy Moss has drawn much of the coverage from opposing defences, fellow wideout Wes Welker has taken advantage by catching a league-leading 79 passes despite sitting out two September games with a knee injury.
In last week's 31-14 victory over the New York Jets, Welker caught 15 passes for 192 yards, both career highs.
"We play those guys straight up but their one-two punch got the best of us," Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis said. "On one play, [Welker] did a triple move that was crazy, man. He's great."
The Saints' offence is also great, with depth a major reason for its success. Running backs Pierre Thomas and Mike Bell have rushed for more than 500 yards apiece, while Bush has scored five TDs and is averaging 5.0 yards per carry as a change-of-pace option.
Leading the entire unit, Brees has thrown touchdowns to nine different receivers including six scoring passes apiece to wideouts Marques Colston and Robert Meachem.
"One of the things that our quarterback does well is read defences and recognize the weaknesses of defences," New Orleans head coach Sean Payton said.
Though New Orleans is trying to establish itself among the NFL's elite and the Patriots have won three Super Bowls this decade, New England may also enter this contest feeling the need to prove itself.
The Patriots nearly dealt Indianapolis, the NFL's other 10-0 team, its lone defeat two weeks ago, but squandered a 17-point fourth-quarter lead in a 35-34 loss marked by coach Bill Belichick's failed fourth-and-two gamble with two minutes remaining.