Stealthily, quietly, the New Orleans Saints have flown under the radar for the first three weeks of this season. A close divisional win over the now-reeling Falcons got lost in the noise of Week 1. An ugly win over Greg Schiano's personal chain gang of beaten-down Buccaneers didn't draw much notice, either. A Week 3 beatdown of Arizona drew some more eyes, but we're all pretty inured to ghastly defeats for the Cardinals.
There were the usual approbations for Drew Brees and the offense, and some murmurs that Rob Ryan's defense wasn't the same easily-immolated bunch that New Orleans had trotted out post-Bountygate. But most NFL conversations were focused on Peyton's statline, hailing the Chiefs, and asking whether lambs' blood on your door could save you from Seattle's Angels of Death on defense. And the Saints ... stayed under the radar.
Then Monday night came. New Orleans popped to deliver a devastating airburst that painted a big, bright blip dead center on the screen. The hard beating they delivered to a previously-undefeated Dolphins squad threw a kink in the developing "AFC >>>> NFC" narrative while landing the Saints squarely among the Super Bowl contenders.
New Orleans at Chicago
This game is the tastiest of three 4-0 vs. 3-1 matchups on the Week 5 slate. For an early(ish) season matchup, it carries some strong import for a pair of NFC contenders. The Saints are looking to prove that they can unleash the same kind of hell when they're not in Home Sweet Dome, while getting to a 5-0 mark that could help PREVENT them from having to journey away from said dome in the playoffs. The Bears want to make up for a rough Week 4 loss to the division rival Lions, quiet the "Same Old Cutler" chatter, and prove that the 2013 version of their defense can still do Bears Things BESIDES score defensive TDs.
Chicago's defense has a tremendous challenge on its hands, especially since star corners Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings offer little help against New Orleans' deadliest weapons of Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles. Sean Payton is proving once again that he's got a multitude of plays to get the ball into the hands of the aforementioned gentlemen. On Monday night, he showed that he can do it with basically the same play run from two different alignments.
Early in the first quarter, New Orleans lined up in a 2x2 spread formation with Darren Sproles as the slot receiver on the left inside of Marques Colston.
Sproles broke out underneath a clearing vertical from Colston, causing Dolphins safety Reshad Jones (20) to come flying towards the flat in pursuit.
One tiny problem for Jones, though. Sproles wasn't going to the flat. He was actually running and out-and-up, leaving his pursuer in the dust as Jones frantically tried to re-direct his momentum. Meanwhile, Colston's release and break to the inside held the rest of the defense in the middle of the field ...
... leaving Sproles all alone to haul in the pass along the sideline and scamper for a 48-yard gain that would help set up the Saint's opening TD.
In the second quarter, Payton would slap a coat of camo on the same concept and run it again, this time to the benefit of star tight end Jimmy Graham.
New Orleans ran a sweet play action fake complete with a pulling guard, which has become de riguer if you really want to hold those linebackers' attention. It works like a charm, and the linebackers hug tight to the line while the Fins free safety is rooted in place. Meanwhile, Meachem and Graham are releasing upfield.
Mirroring the previous play, Graham looks to run an out under Meachem's clearing vertical ...
... and just as before, Graham breaks it to an out-and-up.
The pursuer this time, rookie corner Jamar Taylor, starts out in better position and manages much tighter coverage. Even so, trail technique by a 5'10" dude against a 6'6" basketball star could end very, very poorly. Who dat gonna help dat corner?
No one gonna help dat corner, because the rest of dem Fins were held in the middle by play action and Meachem's interior vertical. Two other guys arrive in time to make the poster, but far too late to make the play as Graham hauls in a perfect Brees throw for the TD.
Chicago's defenders will need to bring their absolute A-game in this one. While the Bears' back seven still boasts a host of big names, only OLB James Anderson has been playing to full form in coverage so far. With a defensive front that is still struggling with the loss of Henry Melton -- who could have helped provide the middle pressure that can at times be Brees' Kryptonite -- it's not the form you want to be in with Sean Payton's bomber wing closing fast.
Saints 27, Bears 24
Seahawks vs. Colts
Week Five offers more intrigue than just Saints-Bears, including two other undefeated vs. 3-1 matchups. Seattle at Indianapolis pits a couple of squads with shockingly similar 2013 resumes:
- Are led by second-year QBs who can get it done with their arms and legs
- Put physical beatings on the 49ers
- Casually choked out a dreadful Jaguars squad
Both squads are also dealing with up-front upheaval on offense. Eleven different guys have taken snaps in Seattle's front five so far this year, and they'll come into this matchup lacking three Opening Day starters in Russell Okung, Max Unger and Breno Giacomini. Indy has faced its share of struggles as well, battling a season-ending quad tear for guard Donald Thomas and injury to C Samson Satele.
Damage on the interior could hinder both run games and pressure both QBs. The passing game will feature strength vs. strength (Indy's pass weapons vs. Seattle's secondary) and meh vs. meh (Seattle's pass weapons vs. Indy's secondary). In the end, Andrew Luck should avoid handing out any Matt Schaub-style candy and guide his squad to a narrow win.
Colts 21, Seahawks 20
Chiefs vs Titans
The Titans' offseason investment in blockers like Chance Warmack, Andy Levitre and Delanie Walker created a potentially sticky situation for running back Chris Johnson. It seemed that he'd be totally bereft of excuses for his latest sloth-like start (3.3 YPC and an abysmal 4% broken tackle rate). Fortunately for CJ2.5YPC, the twin disasters of Jake Locker's hip injury and the government shutdown should give him plenty of ammo for his ongoing Twitter wars with Fantasy owners.
Kansas City at Tennessee doesn't offer much hope for the fantasy owners of any Titan, as the presence of noodle-armed Ryan Fitzpatrick won't do much to scare a frightening Chiefs defense. Dontari Poe is unveiling a Cortez Kennedy-style speed/power combo that somehow creates more havoc in the NFL than it did in Conference USA. Between Poe, dominant linebackers, and a resurgent secondary, the Chiefs defense is looking positively Schottenheimer-esque. The presence of Andy Reid insures that Martyball won't break out on the offensive side despite Sean Hannity-level conservatism from Alex Smith, and that combo should prove too much for the Titans to handle.
Chiefs 27, Titans 17
Sunday features a trio of intra-divisional matchups, with five of the six teams involved in realistic contention for their respective division titles.
Detroit at Green Bay will see the Lions, feeling its oats after bashing the Bears, battle a Packers team out for blood after two weeks to stew on its clownshoes loss to the Bengals. Hopefully the Packers were able to mix in some recovery with their rage, as missing pieces like S Morgan Burnett and CB Casey Heyward will be vital to fixing a leaky secondary. Burnett sounds good to go for Sunday, while news on Heyward is still hard to come by.
Any secondary needs all hands on deck to help contain Calvin Johnson, but Megatron has finally found his Starscream in Reggie Bush. Bush has run wild in both of his full games as a Lion, as he's taking advantage of the massive space that #81 creates. As long as he doesn't mess things up with an ill-fated plan to take control of the
Decepticons Lions, Detroit should be a strong contender this season. It still might not be enough to get past the Pack at Lambeau, though, as Rodgers seems to have that certain gleam in his eye this week.
Packers 31, Lions 27
San Diego at Oakland will see the Philip Rivers resurrection project in full swing, as the Chargers signal caller tries to build on his 1,434 yard start (a scant 36 yards behind Peyton Manning!) while offering constant prayers of thanks that he's no longer asked to perform seven-step drops behind a disastrous OL. He's opposed by the undeniably frisky Terrelle Pryor, whose frisk is hopefully unimpacted after his Week 3 concussion. Both secondaries in this game are horrendous, and while Pryor will churn out yards on the ground, Rivers is far better suited to light up the California skies.
Chargers 30, Raiders 23
Eagles at Giants will see ... very little viewership outside of New York and Philly, as both these teams are circling the drain at a rapid rate. This one at least has the potential for some offensive fireworks, as both defenses have been horrendous thus far. Mike Vick's execution in the passing game has been hit- or-miss, but that still trumps the miss-and-miss show that Eli Manning has put on so far. In fact, Webster's dictionary officially changed the word 'elite' to just 'te' to ensure that you can, in fact, spell it without Eli.
Eagles 31, Giants 27
Mercury Morris Watch
Aside from this week's three headliners, a couple of other undefeated squads still have a chance to make Mercury Morris sip hemlock instead of champagne at season's end. Denver has the better shot of fulfilling that mission, and Broncos at Cowboys should see Peyton Manning light up a Dallas secondary that looks shockingly vulnerable when it's not creating turnovers. Romo and the Cowboys have a history of rising up against the league's absolute best teams (beating the '07 Colts and '09 Saints and playing the '06 Pats to the wire), but an upset in this one would be an outright shocker.
Broncos 34, Cowboys 27
New England at Cincinnati could be a closer contest, but the Bengals need a healing hand for their secondary and some better touch from Andy Dalton. The Ginger Avenger has been derpy on deep throws this season, completing just a third of them for a so-so 9.3 vertical YPA despite the presence of downfield stallion A.J. Green. The Pats beat the Falcons by throwing everything they had at Julio Jones, and they'll likely blanket Green in a similar fashion. Cincy will have a shot to make hay in the run game thanks to the loss of Vince Wilfork, noted clogger of both toilets and interior rush lanes.
Patriots 24, Bengals 23
A pair of physical, bet-the-under style showdowns are brewing on Sunday. J.J. Watt has been chewing nails for a week after the Texans' dreadful loss to Seattle, and he and the defense will make Colin Kaepernick and company earn every yard. Houston at San Francisco should be a slobberknocker.
49ers 21, Texans 17
Baltimore at Miami won't be much different from the above matchup. Both sides here feature stout defensive fronts as Miami revels in the return of tackle Paul Soliai. Both Tannehill and Joe Flacco have been up and down this year, but the difference should be Torrey Smith outshining Mike Wallace and Ray Rice continuing the Dolphins' struggles to contain receiving backs.
Ravens 20, Dolphins 17
Don't Show Up Late to the Sports Bar Specials
Prompt arrival is at a premium this week, because for as many good matchups as Week Five offers you don't want to end up at the back table watching one of these stinkers.
Panthers 24, Cardinals 13
Rams 24, Jaguars 13
Falcons 21, Jets 17