The New Orleans Saints – in no way, shape or form – are limping into this one.
The Saints (10-3) remain one victory (or Tampa Bay loss) from winning their fourth consecutive NFC South Division title, still realistically can eye the No. 1 seed and still occupy a position that's enviable to all but three NFL teams – and two of them aren't in their conference.
But one of them, Kansas City (12-1), is Sunday's opponent in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. And the Chiefs, the reigning Super Bowl champions, are poised to make another run.
New Orleans has a tall task. It knows that. We'll give you a few ways in which the Saints can scale it.
- BALL HOGS: The Saints are second in the league in time of possession per game (32:10) and the undeniable fact is, regardless of how explosive Kansas City's offense is and how quickly it can score, it can't do damage if it doesn't have the ball. New Orleans runs for 137.3 yards per game and the Chiefs allow 128.4 rushing yards, so that appears to be a recipe for ball control. It's obviously fantastic that Drew Brees is returning to the lineup after missing four games with cracked ribs. That means the Saints are even better positioned to keep Kansas City's offense off the field and shrink the game for the Chiefs. In Kansas City's lone loss, the Raiders ran for 144 yards and had possession for 35:18, so this could be a good work day for Saints running backs Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray. It's not a guarantee of victory, but playing keep-away with Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes is never a bad thing.
- STAY DISCIPLINED: As appealing as it may sound to keep the ball away from Mahomes, he and the best passing offense in the NFL (317.5 yards per game, 374.3 over the last three) will have their hands on it, several times. So the Saints have to make sure they stay true to the gameplan. New Orleans had difficulty keeping Philadelphia's Jalen Hurts surrounded and in the pocket and while Mahomes isn't likely to scramble or have designed runs nearly as much as Hurts did, New Orleans still has to be mindful of keeping him in the pocket. He's dangerous as it is, but when he breaks contain, he has the arm strength to do extraordinary things and he has the receivers (tight end Travis Kelce leads the NFL with 1,250 receiving yards, and receiver Tyreek Hill probably is the fastest player in the league) to make life miserable for an opposing defense. How many hits can Saints defensive end Cam Jordan and his teammates get on Mahomes? Can they rattle him a bit? The answers need to be, "several," and "yes."
- BE SPECIAL: Wil Lutz has missed his last three field-goal attempts. Deonte Harris has been unavailable as a returner for the last three games. New Orleans needs both of them to be at their peak Sunday. Lutz and the snap-hold-kick operation have to smooth out the issues if there's an operational problem; otherwise, it's on the talented kicker simply to do what he has made everyone accustomed to seeing him do. Harris' availability isn't a given, but if he is, the Saints have missed the hidden yardage he provides on returns. He can tilt the field with a good return or two, and help make life easier for the offense.
- SOLO ACTS: Receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who faced the Chiefs in the Super Bowl as a member of the San Francisco 49ers, said the Chiefs favor playing lots of man-to-man in the secondary. If that's the case, the Saints have to turn Kansas City's risk into New Orleans' reward. With Michael Thomas not playing, Sanders, Tre'Quan Smith and tight end Jared Cook need to win their one-on-ones when the opportunity presents itself. Chunk play possibilities will be available, if…
- PROTECT THE ASSET …the Saints protect the quarterback. Brees is back, but he might not be back for long if he's taking a pounding. The offensive line has to be drastically better than it was against Philadelphia, when the Eagles totaled five sacks. But Brees helps with his decision-making; he'll get rid of the ball on time, throw it away when necessary, do all the things that help out an offensive line. He's going to take some hits, that's simply part of the game. But it can't be a situation where he's taking seven, eight hits and being driven into the turf.
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