For the Patriots, this is a must-win game.
Plain and simple.
The Saints (2-2) will test them with a hard-nosed defense and balanced offense hamstrung by inconsistent play from their quarterback and offensive line. The Pats can’t wait out New Orleans, like they did against the Jets. They must deliver a knockout blow to a team built in a mirror image.
The first to 20 points just might win. Game on.
When the Patriots run
If life on the ground wasn’t hard enough for the Patriots, Rhamondre Stevenson popped up on the team’s injury report this week.
Stevenson was limited Wednesday and Thursday by a thigh injury. If the injury is new, it won’t help Stevenson boost his 2.7 yards per carry average. The Pats’ top back has underwhelmed after a breakout 2022 season, while Ezekiel Elliott has topped 30 rushing yards in just a single game.
Two Saints defenders for the Patriots to watch for: linebacker Demario Davis and defensive lineman Cameron Jordan. Davis ranks second on the team in tackles and remains one of the most instinctive players in the league. Jordan, meanwhile, drew high praise from Bill Belichick this week as he concludes a potential Hall of Fame career.
“Jordan is one of the players I have the most respect for in the league,” Belichick said. “He’s been a great player for a long time, very durable, whatever it was – 177 straight games he played. This guy shows up every week and plays well, run, pass, situational football, really smart player. This guy’s a great player.”
When the Patriots pass
For the first time all season, Mac Jones might get a chance to breathe.
The Patriots have faced three of the NFL’s best defenses by pressure rate this season and will now welcome a Saints front that hurries quarterbacks far less frequently. Jones must not only capitalize on his extra time and space, but play better than he has from clean pockets. Thus far this season, he’s completing 72.6% of his passes for 630 yards, four touchdowns and three interceptions.
On the outside, Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore headlines one of the better secondaries in the NFL. Considering no Patriots pass-catcher has reached 200 yards this season, it’s unlikely JuJu Smuth-Schuster, Kendrick Bourne or DeVante Parker will carry the offense without a breakout game. Therefore, Jones must spread the wealth around, from his receivers to the running backs and tight ends.
Of note: New Orleans has allowed 12 catches to tight ends all season.
When the Saints run
The Saints wasted no time feeding Alvin Kamara in his return last week, when he played more than 70% of the team’s offensive snaps versus Tampa Bay.
Kamara finished with 84 yards on 24 touches, including a team-high 13 catches. New Orleans handed the ball off to him on several zone-blocked runs, which the Patriots have largely shut down this season. The loss of Matt Judon could loosen up the edge of their defense, a soft spot three weeks ago versus Miami.
When Kamara sits, the Saints have shown faith in backups Jamaal Williams and Tony Jones. Limiting yards after contact will be a key for the Patriots, who missed a season-worst 12 tackles at Dallas last weekend. The Pats must keep Kamara from breaking away for a long touchdown and force New Orleans to move the ball slowly downfield.
When the Saints pass
Playing through a sprained AC joint, Saints quarterback Derek Carr went 23-for-37 and 127 yards last week versus Tampa Bay. Carr has turned into a Checkdown Charlie in most of his career meetings versus the Patriots, so history should repeat itself Sunday if he’s unable to drive the ball downfield.
Out wide, Michael Thomas and Chris Olave are one of the better receiver duos in the NFL. The Saints move Olave around most formations, making it difficult for defenses to consistently track the former top-10 pick. He leads the team with 23 catches for 306 yards.
Whomever the Patriots use to replace Christian Gonzalez — newly-reacquired J.C. Jackson, Myles Bryant or Shaun Wade — expect New Orleans to test that matchup. And if the Pats can’t hurry Carr with Judon out, they could be in for a long game. The pressure is certainly on Josh Uche, Keion White and Deatrich Wise to generate enough pressure in Judon’s absence.
Patriots 13, Saints 12