Bye week came early for the New Orleans Saints, but you'd be hard-pressed to say it didn't come at a good time.
The Saints (3-2) have several key players returning to play for the Monday night game against the Seahawks (2-4) at Lumen Field in Seattle. That, alone, won't equal victory, but it'll go a long way toward New Orleans claiming its third road win of the season.
Here are a few other considerations to factor in:
1. CONTINUE THE GROWTH: New Orleans entered the bye with quarterback Jameis Winston having played his most productive game, in terms of passing yards, as a Saint. Winston threw for 279 yards, and four touchdowns, against Washington. He appears to be warming to the position in New Orleans, and that's a good thing because the Seahawks present one of the league's more inviting targets as a pass defense. Opponents are averaging 292 passing yards per game, completing 68 percent of their passes, and have thrown 10 touchdowns with just two interceptions against Seattle. The Seahawks, obviously, will want to make Winston uncomfortable. But for just the second time this season, he might have his starting offensive line intact (center Erik McCoy and left tackle Terron Armstead returned to practice this week). It'll hurt that Deonte Harris and Taysom Hill won't be available to the offense; Harris is the Saints' most explosive player. But Winston-to-Marquez Callaway has picked up steam, and New Orleans has shown that if Winston has time, he can make a defense pay a price.
2. GET GENO: Russell Wilson (finger) is out at quarterback for Seattle, and Geno Smith is in. Smith hasn't been anything close to terrible in the two games he has played (a combined 33 for 49 for 340 yards and two touchdowns, with an interception), but he was sacked five times and lost a fumble in the last game, against Pittsburgh. New Orleans hasn't done much in terms of sacking quarterbacks (eight for the season), but the Saints have nine interceptions and have allowed just five touchdown passes. That suggests that the pressures and hurries have been just as important as sacks. Smith is mobile, so New Orleans has to be mindful of closing off scramble lanes. And in DK Metcalf (441 receiving yards, five touchdowns, six catches of 20-plus yards) and Tyler Lockett (425 yards, three scores, seven catches of 20-plus yards), Smith will have two of the best deep threats in the NFL. This is the kind of matchup that Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore has thrived in, and he'll be expected to rise to the challenge in this one, too. As always, it could be a busy game for rookie corner Paulson Adebo; if he falters, Bradley Roby should be ready to help.
3. STAY HOT IN THE RED: The Saints have the best red zone offense in the league, 13 for 14. It's one of the most phenomenal numbers for the team's offense, and it's something the team will want to continue against Seattle. New Orleans has to cash in its scoring opportunities, and touchdowns are always preferable to field goals. Winston has passed or run for 10 red zone touchdowns, so his decision-making has been more than solid. Seattle has had stops 50 percent of the time on defense in the red zone, and the Saints want to be a lot more successful than that.
4. DEFEND EVERY BLADE: The Saints defense is tops in the league in red zone percentage (35.7, five touchdowns allowed in 14 opponents' opportunities). That's uplifting for a defense, frustrating for an offense. When linebacker Demario Davis says the defense wants to defend every blade of grass, the numbers have shown that's exactly what New Orleans has done, including three interceptions inside the 10-yard line. That'll matter Monday night: If Seattle drives, keep the Seahawks out of the end zone.
5. CROWD CONTROL: It's Seattle, so it'll be loud. Really, really loud. The best way to deal with crowd noise is to take an early lead and maintain, or extend, it. New Orleans needs a good start in this one, because even with a backup quarterback, momentum can be hard to overcome on the road and a loud crowd can affect the game for an opposing offense. The Saints, who play in the Caesars Superdome, know that as well as anyone.
ZATARAIN'S KEY INGREDIENTS RECIPE OF THE WEEK:
CAJUN FIESTA DIP
Put a Cajun twist on your party dip with this easy appetizer recipe.