The New Orleans Saints (4-2) will seek to retain a share of their lead in the NFC South when they battle the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday, October 23, in a nationally televised showdown at the MercedesBenz Superdome.
Following a 26-20 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium, New Orleans is tied with Tampa, 4-2, for the division lead, with their second meeting of the 2011 season scheduled in two weeks in New Orleans. The 0-6 Colts, who have struggled without the services of QB Peyton Manning due to a neck injury, have remained competitive with four of the losses by eight points or less.
In the regular season, the series between the Saints and Colts is tied at 5-5; however, their most famous meeting is their most recent one, which occurred in the postseason. More than 20 months ago on February 7, 2010, the Saints experienced their highest point as a franchise when they defeated the Colts 34-17 in Super Bowl XLIV in South Florida's Sun Life Stadium. While tonight's game is certainly not the same spectacle, it is nevertheless important as the Saints seek to remain among the teams with the top six records in a competitive NFC race.
After playing three consecutive road games and compiling a 2-1 record, the Saints are excited to return to the friendly confines of the MercedesBenz Superdome.
Since the 2008 season, New Orleans has posted a 19-7 record at home, including posting a 30-13 victory over Chicago on September 18 and a stirring come-from-behind 40-33 win over Houston on September 25 in their two 2011 Superdome appearances.
The Saints come into this evening's contest off a hard-fought loss to the Buccaneers, where the club overcame adversity on several angles and remained in it nearly until the final whistle.
On New Orleans' third offensive play of the contest, Head Coach Sean Payton suffered a leg injury in a collision with TE Jimmy Graham that would force him to the locker room for the second half with play-calling duties ceded to offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr.
After falling behind 20-7 in the second quarter, the Saints reduced their deficit to 23-20 in the fourth quarter and had advanced to the Buccaneers four-yard line with less than 3 minutes and 30 seconds in the game, where an interception in the end zone kept the Saints from stealing the win.
Although New Orleans' defense was victimized by several big plays and a productive running game by Tampa Bay, they allowed their opponent to convert only four of 14 (29 percent) third-down attempts, forcing four punts and five field goal attempts. S Malcolm Jenkins led the defensive effort with a team-high seven tackles and two pass defenses.
Offensively, QB Drew Brees and Carmichael collaborated after Payton was forced from the sidelines and the signal-caller completed 29-of-45 passes for 383 yards with one touchdown pass and three interceptions. Brees became the first quarterback in NFL record books to have three consecutive games of at least 350 yards passing.
"They took the ball away four times, which, if you can do that, you're going to win a lot of games," said Brees. "We gave it away four times, which we can't do. Granted, the last play of the game, it's fourth-down, you have to throw it up anyway. The fact of the matter is, that'll get you beat. We've got to do a better job with that. I'm confident that we will. Other than that, I felt like we moved the ball. We just kicked a couple of field goals when maybe we could have kept some drives alive. The turnovers hurt us obviously, too. I think they gave them some good field position on a few occasions, which obviously can't happen. That just puts our defense in a tough spot, and we can't allow that."
His top two targets were Graham and WR Marques Colston, both of whom exceed the centurymark in receiving yardage. Graham also entered the record books, as he had seven receptions for 124 yards, becoming the first Saint to have 100 yards receiving in four consecutive games.
He joined Tony Gonzalez as only the second NFL tight end to do so since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. It is a mark he will have the opportunity to surpass tonight. "For me it's bittersweet," said Graham.
"I wish we had gone home with the win, [but] there were a lot of things I did wrong and that I have to correct going into this game." WR Marques Colston also showed he is fully recovered from an early season shoulder injury as he finished with seven receptions for 118 yards, including a 38-yard scoring grab.
The Colts traveled to Cincinnati and dropped a 2717 decision to the Bengals, where much like the Saints, they were in position to take a lead with under three minutes remaining but were victimized by a turnover.
Indianapolis ranks 26th in the NFL in defense, 30th against the run and 16th against the pass. The Colts, who have improved their production in recent weeks with Curtis Painter under center, are ranked 31st overall in offense (28th rushing and 28th passing).
Powered by the arm of Brees and the hands of Graham and Colston, New Orleans is ranked second in the NFL in total offense (second in passing with an average of 343.4 yards per game, 18th in rushing), as the only NFL team to average over 400 yards per game. The defense is currently ranked 17th (14th vs. the run, 19th against the pass).
"With everything that happened – in losing our head coach and offensive play-caller on the third call of the game – everybody stepped up and did a great job to make up for that, and we battled even though we didn't play our best football," said Brees. "We had a chance in the end, and we just didn't get it done. That's disappointing. I'm confident that we'll come back better than ever. I know the type of guys that are in this locker game. We're going to stick together and fight through this adversity. The train keeps rolling. This is a long season. We're sitting here 4-2 after we dropped a divisional game on the road. It hurts, but there's a lot of football left to be played. There's no doubt we've got to get better and we will against the Colts