When was the last time a team won five straight games, led its division (6-1 in the NFC South), was considered one of the top teams in the NFL – and pretty much none of that was the lead story of the week for that team?
That’s what the potential return to the lineup of a Hall of Fame quarterback can do to every other storyline, and it’s what it has done for the New Orleans Saints leading into Sunday’s game against Arizona (3-3-1) in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Drew Brees, out since tearing a ligament in his right thumb Sept. 15, plans to return to play Sunday. And if all went well during the week of practice, he will return against the Cardinals. That possible emotional boost, obviously, would be to New Orleans’ benefit. But here are a few other things that could help New Orleans earn its sixth straight win:
- If not for Brees’ possible return, the talk of the Saints very well would be the defense. In the last four games, New Orleans has allowed 16.3 points and 246.8 yards per game, and no opponent has topped 257 yards. Toss in 11 sacks and five turnovers forced – plus, opponents have converted just 27 percent on third down (13 of 48) and have been stopped three of five times on fourth down – and to say it has been a good stretch doesn’t nearly encompass the effectiveness. Arizona is averaging 29 points per game during its three-game winning streak, and rookie quarterback Kyler Murray hasn’t committed a turnover and only has been sacked three times during the streak. He’s mobile, so there might be a bit of extra work to be done by Saints defensive end Cam Jordan (seven sacks, tied for fourth-most in the NFL) and his teammates. But they’ll need to rattle Murray and pressure him; he was sacked 20 times in the first four games. First, though, the Saints need to take away the run; Chase Edmonds ran for 126 yards and three touchdowns, on 27 carries, last week against the Giants. New Orleans has allowed 57.8 rushing yards and 3.2 yards per carry over the last four games.
- Here’s what will matter most at quarterback for the Saints, whether it’s Brees or Teddy Bridgewater handling the duties: Protection. Sure, I say that every week, but not every opponent is coming off an eight-sack game like Arizona. And not every team has 22 sacks, fourth-most in the league. Cardinals defensive end Chandler Jones (8.5 sacks, third-most in the league) knows how to get to quarterbacks, but the Saints offensive line probably is in its best stretch of the season, and it dominated the Bears’ defensive front last Sunday in a 36-25 victory. The Cardinals allow 129 rushing yards and 4.7 yards per carry so this could be another day in which the Saints’ line leans on an opposing defense and imposes its will, especially in the second half. New Orleans learned against Chicago that Latavius Murray (27 carries, 119 yards, two touchdowns) is more than capable of producing, so expect the Saints to attack Arizona on the ground whether or not Alvin Kamara is back from injury. A good ground game always makes it easier to throw.
- Patrick Peterson is one of the league’s elite cornerbacks, and has been for at least the last half-decade. Michael Thomas leads the league in receptions (62) and receiving yards (763). This matchup will be worth the price of admission on its own. Thomas hasn’t yet been contained this season; the more physical the confrontation, the more he seems to thrive.
- The Saints totally have shut down opposing receivers over the last four games. Sunday’s game brings about the opportunity to try their luck against Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald (36-439-2), who keeps beating back Father Time with a stick. By far, he’s Arizona’s most productive receiver and New Orleans will see if it can force Murray to find an alternate target.