The sudden-death-ness of it all certainly leads to a higher level of anticipation, doesn't it?
When the New Orleans Saints (12-4) play Chicago (8-8) on Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in their NFC Wild Card playoff game, the winner moves onward and upward and the loser cleans out its locker. It doesn't get much more sudden than that.
The teams played earlier this season – New Orleans took a 26-23, overtime victory in Chicago – but that seems like a lifetime ago. Here, in the present, are a few ways that the Saints can be the team with the onward and upward move:
- BUILD A BUBBLE: That means keeping quarterback Drew Brees upright and unharmed. New Orleans has done a good job of that since Brees returned from injuries – he was sacked just 13 times in 12 games – and it'll need to do so Sunday. Chicago will counter with elite pass rusher Khalil Mack (nine sacks, 13 quarterback hits, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries) and former Saint Akiem Hicks (21 quarterback hits, seven tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks). The offensive line, the strength of the Saints' offense this season, held up well enough in the first matchup when Brees completed 31 of 41 passes for 272 yards and two touchdowns, without an interception. And Brees, for the first time in months, will have available his full arsenal of receivers. Though we can't be sure how productive Michael Thomas will be, we can be sure that his presence will command attention and that'll help make everyone's life easier. Tight end Jared Cook may bear watching; he doesn't have many receptions (37) but he finds the end zone (seven touchdowns).
- FEED THE BEASTS: The Saints' passing game also should benefit from one of the league's best run games. Over the last seven regular-season games, New Orleans ran for 169 yards per game and totaled 18 rushing touchdowns. Alvin Kamara (932 rushing yards and a franchise-record 21 total touchdowns) was responsible for much of that production, and he should be back after missing the regular-season finale, following a positive Covid-19 test. He and Latavius Murray present a formidable 1-2 punch (1,588 combined rushing yards and 20 rushing touchdowns), and the Saints' offensive line really enjoys being physical, so the line battle should be fun to watch every down. Chicago isn't impenetrable; it allows 113.4 rushing yards per game. The Saints need to stay balanced and on schedule offensively, and the way to do that is by running effectively.
- AVOID EYE CANDY: Chicago's quarterback change has meant a change in the offensive approach. Nick Foles, the starter in the Saints' win earlier this season, is more of a pocket presence and the Saints took advantage by sacking him five times, including a couple of critical sacks in overtime. Mitchell Trubisky, who'll start Sunday, isn't nearly as stationary. The Bears will utilize everything with Trubisky – bootlegs, naked rollouts, zone reads and play action – and New Orleans can't afford to be fooled often. The Saints need to be disciplined and probably would prefer to have Trubisky in the pocket. Chicago has David Montgomery as its running threat (1,070 rushing yards and eight touchdowns, plus 438 receiving yards and two scores), but New Orleans hopes to have shored up its run defense after a couple of uncharacteristic leaks late in the season. The defensive line carries a lot of responsibility into this one, and Cam Jordan, David Onyemata, Trey Hendrickson, Sheldon Rankins, Malcom Brown and Carl Granderson need to be stout.
- COVER, AND THEN SOME: Because Trubisky is mobile, there might be occasions when the secondary has to cover for an extra beat or two. It has to be ready for that. The Saints were as productive as any pass defense (a league-lead tying 18 interceptions) and the secondary is at full capacity. C.J. Gardner-Johnson, Marcus Williams and Patrick Robinson are back after missing the regular-season finale, and Marshon Lattimore and Jackrabbit Jenkins have been formidable as the starting corners. Bears receivers Allen Robinson and Darnell Mooney can be dangerous, and tight end Jimmy Graham still has some juice left, especially in the red zone. Robinson and Mooney were slowed by injuries, so their availability isn't a guarantee. That, obviously, would work in New Orleans' favor.
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