The hottest team in the league,
That's what the New Orleans Saints (7-1), winners of seven straight games, are. And obviously, that's what they hope still will be said of them Sunday night, after their noon kickoff against Cincinnati (5-3) at Paul Brown Stadium. Here are a few items worth watching in the game:
- The big question is, What production will the Saints get from any receivers not named Michael Thomas? There are opportunities to be had – rookie Tre'Quan Smith has shown some flashes – but there hasn't been a consistent threat behind Thomas at receiver (running back Alvin Kamara is second on the team, with 51 catches for 427 yards and three touchdowns). Thomas is a star (70-880-5) who commands extra attention, so the door is open for someone to shine and help carry the load.
- This Bengals defense appears to be exactly the kind of defense that the Saints will excel against offensively. Not to take anything for granted, because anything can happen on a given Sunday in the NFL, but Cincinnati allows 29.6 points per game, while the Saints score 34.9; Cincinnati gives up 447.8 yards per game, while the Saints accrue 402; and the Bengals surrender 319.4 passing yards per game, while the Saints post 289.9. Thomas, Kamara, quarterback Drew Brees and the NFL's best offensive line should be able to put up some numbers. New Orleans has to control Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins (six sacks), because he can wreck an offensive plan singlehandedly.
- The numbers say that there's no reason that the Saints, with the NFL's best run defense (76.4 yards allowed per game), shouldn't be able to make the Bengals, with one of the NFL's worst rushing offenses (92.8 yards per game), one-dimensional. The Saints' strength this season has been taking away the run, and while that has led to more passing game production than New Orleans would like to see (311.4 yards per game), the recipe has worked. Linebackers Demario Davis, A.J. Klein and Alex Anzalone are playing at a high level (Anzalone has forced a turnover in the last two games), and they'll again be key components to slowing down Cincinnati running back Joe Mixon.
- Bengals receiver A.J. Green isn't playing. The Saints' secondary can't exhale because of that. Cornerback Marshon Lattimore correctly surmised that if the receivers are in the NFL, they're capable playmakers, and the Saints have to extend to the Bengals' remaining receivers that kind of respect. There hasn't been much production from the group outside of Tyler Boyd (49 catches, 620 yards, five touchdowns), but the Saints have to be prepared to smother any potential breakout performances by someone other than Boyd.
- It might have sounded a bit nit-picky at the time, but Saints Coach Sean Payton was correct: New Orleans has to be better defensively in the red zone. Opponents are scoring touchdowns 71.4 percent of the time they reach the red zone against the Saints, and that's alarming. Obviously, it hasn't been so detrimental so far as to cause multiple losses, but the law of averages will catch up to a team that doesn't tighten up that deficiency.