Patriots Have Defining Test Against Saints’ Varsity-Level Offense of Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham

Tom Brady, Austin CollieThe 1 p.m. game on CBS last Sunday between the Patriots and the Bengals resembled football. But the 4:25 contest between the Broncos and Cowboys — now, that was football. Real football as the modern NFL knows it.

Patriots fans who left their TVs on to see the transition between the three-and-out fest and the Peyton Manning-Tony Romo show should be very concerned. If the Patriots of 1 p.m. show up this week, the results could get ugly fast against a New Orleans Saints team that rivals even the explosive offenses of the Broncos and the Cowboys.

The Patriots, with all their field goals, were a JV squad last week compared to the varsity teams of the NFL, of which the Saints appear to be leading the pack.

New Orleans is 5-0 this year under returned coach Sean Payton, and what has always been a supercharged offense has only gotten better under his relentless focus this season. Payton is one of the best coaches in the NFL, and there’s a reason people like to pick out his quirks, Bill Belichick-style — every little thing he does seems to work.

The Patriots, meanwhile, despite having the pedigree that always marks them as favorites, haven’t been dominant yet this year. They enjoyed three gimmes to start the season (with two of them still hard to pull off), and they were fortunate to play their best game against the hardest team yet, the Atlanta Falcons (which now seems to be not a very good team). Their first loss, last week, was on paper an expected one, considering how strong the Bengals were predicted to be this season. But in reality, the defeat was disgusting, as it was not a win by still-shaky Cincinnati but rather a loss by New England. The Patriots’ offense had issues all over, Tom Brady couldn’t take advantage of his receivers’ growth, and the Patriots’ defense showed chinks in new places after seeming to have solved many of its problems.

It should have been a contest between two good teams, but it wasn’t. It was an escape by one underperforming team against another one that still looks like it’s playing underwater.

That habit — that New England is a slow-motion version of itself — has to change this Sunday. While the first four wins were certainly wins, anyone watching could tell they came less from the Patriots playing well and more from the Patriots winning games that appeared to be lifted from regular football and set in an alternate universe.

Of course, that’s often what Belichick-led teams do best — they redefine the game and beat teams not by “beating” them with Manning- or Romo-style passes, but rather by grinding teams out of their rhythm and then getting just enough points to win. It’s ugly, though, and it doesn’t resemble the rest of the NFL, where games are won by things like huge downfield completions, great run-blocking or flashy defensive plays.

The Patriots’ strategy so far this season has seemed to be reducing the game to something less than great football and then edging the other team. While that has worked against the Bills, Jets, Buccaneers, Falcons and almost the Bengals, that method could easily get beaten over the top by the Saints.

New England has to perform on both sides of the ball this Sunday to have a chance against the visitors, but which side of the ball is more vital is actually not a given. While Brady certainly needs to start executing, and the rest of the offense — including a back-from-injury Stevan Ridley — needs to show it can produce, this may actually be a more defining game for the defense. The Patriots’ defense has carried the team so far this season, but whether it’s a top-tier unit or just one that has matched up well and had timely interceptions should be determined this week.

The Saints’ offense is as good as it comes. New Orleans will present many problems, with each area at a higher level of difficulty than the Patriots have seen this season. The Saints have a deep receiving corps, and tight end Jimmy Graham can be impossible to match up with (especially after the Patriots got manhandled by Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez). Drew Brees is elite in his decision-making, and he also has the strength and precision to make those downfield throws that are endangered species in Patriots games.

The Saints play a different brand of football than the Patriots — one that’s emblematic of what the new NFL looks like. But New England’s often-ugly brand of pigskin still produces winning records, even in seasons like this one, when the wins are uglier than a loss may be. The Patriots have looked bad, but that may be because they’re executing well and causing everything to grind to a halt. If so, Sunday’s game could take on a similar complexion as the Patriots’ other wins, and a similar result.

Whether the Patriots are a JV squad about to meet a varsity, or whether New England is actually about to school New Orleans, is what’s really on the line this week.

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