8:20 PM EST, NBC – Line: Saints -3, Over/Under: 52.5
Two of the NFC’s elite teams clash in Week Three as the Green Bay Packers look to advance to 3-0, while the New Orleans Saints simply look to pick up the pieces in this primetime matchup from Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana. Through the first two weeks of the campaign, you’d be hard-pressed to find a team in the NFC more impressive than the Packers (2-0, 1st in NFC North), who look to be even better than they were in 2019, in which they won the division at 13-3 and advanced all the way to the NFC Championship Game. While most would agree that Green Bay overachieved in their first run under new Head Coach, Matt LaFleur, the expectations surrounding this franchise weren’t very lofty heading into 2020, with the general consensus being that they would in fact revert back to the mean. So why the pessimism, you ask? Well, part of that opinion is a lack of belief in the aforementioned LaFleur, whose legitimacy in the coaching realm is tied directly to his stewardship of two of the league’s most respected young offensive minds, Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay. Is the 40-year old truly as inspired a strategist as his mentors, or is he simply just another assistant riding the coattails of a mastermind? After all, the Offense was rather middling last year (363.3 Y/G, 18th Overall), but the Defense on the other hand was stellar in ranking ninth in points allowed (19.6) and seventh in takeaways (25). Oh, and how much of their success comes down to having the one and only Aaron Rodgers (67.6%, 604 YDS, 7.91 NY/A, 6 TD, 91.7 QBR), who continued to carry an attack that lacked a plethora of weapons?
Speaking of Rodgers, it was an interesting Offseason for the two-time MVP, who saw the only franchise that he’s every played for once again pass on significantly upgrading the supporting cast around. Heading into last season, it was all about bolstering the Defense, but with the Quarterback approaching the age of thirty-seven, and with a dearth of weapons at his disposal one would think that the Packers would do everything within their power to supply him with the necessary ammunition to contend for a Super Bowl before his career comes to a close. However, that’s not what Green Bay did… AT ALL. Instead of adding weapons, LaFleur and General Manager, Brian Gutekunst, selected what many expect to be his eventual successor, Jordan Love (26th Overall), with their lone pick in the First Round of the 2020 NFL Draft. Needless to say, this was revelation to many around the league, including Rodgers himself, who had openly questioned the transaction in multiple interviews over the Summer, even going so far as to make the statement that he didn’t necessarily see himself ending his career with the club that drafted him back in 2005. The rest of the Draft was actually spent bolstering the ground game, with Tailback, AJ Dillion (62nd Overall), selected in the Second Round, followed by Tight End, Josiah Deguara (94th Overall), in the Third, and three consecutive Offensive Linemen in the Sixth. Now these moves can be interpreted two differing ways: you’re either in the camp believing that Gutekunst and LaFleur are actively trying to annoy their future Hall of Fame passer by denying him one of the many talented receivers that were available, or looking at this draft class as proof that they’re continuing the work that they began last year in furthering the growth of the running game, and after all, a strong run game is an aging Quarterback’s best friend. Remember, LaFleur comes from the Shanahan/McVay coaching tree, and both coaches build their game plans out of a successful rushing attack, allowing for creativity and higher percentage throws downfield. The emergence of Tailback, Aaron Jones (34 CAR, 234 YDS, 6.9 Y/C, 3 TD), was the beginning of this process in 2019, and beefing things up in the trenches and Backfield is a telltale sign that this unit is in the midst of Phase Two. The 26-year old burst onto the scene last season and led the NFL with sixteen rushing touchdowns, while also playing a prominent role in the passing game as well, hauling in forty-nine receptions for 474 yards and another three scores.
“Today’s a game we expect to win… No, we don’t have the home crowd, but we’ve had such an advantage at home over the years. We were 7-1 (at home) last year, we’ve obviously been good in the division last couple years, haven’t lost, but these are the type of games you have to win.”Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers Quarterback
So with a potentially grumpy Quarterback and a lack of proven weapons in the passing game, how have the Packers performed on this side of the football, you ask? FLAWLESSLY, of course. It seems that all of the criticism surrounding their Offseason was indeed much ado about nothing, for Green Bay has been a bonafide juggernaut thus far, averaging 45.2 points (1st Overall) on a whopping 510.5 total yards (1st Overall), including 302.0 yards through the air (5th Overall) and another 208.5 yards on the ground (1st Overall), all the while converting on 52.2% of their third downs (6th Overall) and committing zero turnovers (1st Overall). Through two weeks, the aforementioned Jones leads the league with 234 yards on an explosive 6.9 yards per carry, while Rodgers has enjoyed excellent protection (he’s been sacked just once), completing 67.6% of his attempts for 604 yards and six touchdowns. When we last saw them, the Packers rallied back from an early 14-3 lead to blow out the Detroit Lions (42-21) last Sunday, scoring thirty-one unanswered points. Jones went OFF, accumulating 236 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns on twenty-two touches, including a 75-yard touchdown on the first play of the second half to break the affair wide open. To his credit, Rodgers completed 18-of-30 passes for 240 yards and two touchdowns. Following their 43-34 victory at the Minnesota Vikings in the Season Opener, Green Bay has become the just the eighth side in the Super Bowl era to score at least forty points in each of their first tow games of the season, with each of the last two, the Saints (2009) and Broncos (2013) advancing to the Super Bowl. We’ll have to see if they can keep up the fireworks tonight, for they may be without Pro-Bowl Receiver, Davante Adams (17 REC, 192 YDS, 11.3 Y/R, 2 TD), who is nursing a tender hamstring, and Center, Corey Linsley, who injured his hand, with both players sitting out the second half of last weekend’s win.
Meanwhile, though they’re still in first place within the division, you’d be hard-pressed to find many good vibes permeating from the Saints (1-1, T-1st in NFC South), who were hammered last Monday Night in a 34-24 defeat in the league’s first-ever game in Las Vegas. Things quickly worked to their favor early in the affair, with New Orleans racing out 10-0 and 17-7 leads built on the strength of a quick-strike Offense that didn’t appear to miss All-Pro Receiver, Michael Thomas (3 REC, 17 YDS, 5.7 Y/R, 0 TD), at all. However, the momentum would gradually swing towards the home side, with Sean Payton’s Defense slowly getting manhandled by the Raiders’ rushing attack, which kept Drew Brees & Co off the field for a whopping 36:18, with the visitors only possessing the football for one lone drive in the third quarter. At one point, Las Vegas scored twenty-four unanswered points against them, with penalties absolutely killing the Saints, who committed ten of them for an embarrassing 129 yards. It was a very disappointing showing for a team billed by many to be the favorite to emerge from the competitive NFC, with a Quarterback that looked old (more on him shortly), a passing game that lacked options, and a Defense that despite a wealth of talent was physically dominated. So where does New Orleans go from hear, you ask?
Coming into this season, you could literally hear the hands of the clock ticking away on the Saints, who it seems have been doing everything within their power to keep their championship window from shutting altogether. No team has won more games over the past two years (26-6), but that success in the regular season has not translated to the postseason, with the franchise meeting heartbreak in a variety of ways in the Playoffs. With that said, they remain one of the few legitimate contenders to represent the NFC in Super Bowl LV, right? After all, after years of embarrassing play, the Defense has received the requisite reinforcements and is now capable of winning games, which is what happened in the Season Opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (34-23). The Offense continued to add weapons, signing veteran Receiver, Emmanuel Sanders (4 REC, 33 YDS, 8.3 Y/R, 1 TD), in Free Agency, while also keeping their biggest names in house, resigning Pro Bowl Tailback, Alvin Kamara (39 TCH, 241 YDS, 6.2 Y/TCH, 4 TD), to a mammoth contract extension. Oh, and they also convinced their aging Franchise Quarterback, Drew Brees (64.7%, 472 YDS, 6.71 NY/A, 3 TD, 1 INT, 68.8 QBR), to return for one more season, and one final run to hoisting a Lombardi Trophy, which they haven’t done since 2009. Now 41-years old, the thirteen-time Pro-Bowler has been the most prolific passer in the league since arriving in the Big Easy back in 2006, and currently holds a litany of records serving as the NFL’s all-time leader in passing attempts (10,229), yards (77,888), and touchdowns (550). And quite frankly, he hasn’t really shown major signs of decline; Brees has led the league in completion percentage in each of the last three seasons, including a career-high 74.4% in 2018 followed by 74.3% last year. However, he has benefitted greatly by a number of factors, including Payton’s scheme, the home field advantage enjoyed at the Superdome, an Offensive Line that has protected him greatly (his 3.1% sack percentage in 2019 was the lowest in the league among qualified Quarterbacks), and a youthful supporting cast consisting of the aforementioned tandem of Thomas and Kamara. Unfortunately, he’s begun to show a trend of fading down the stretch, particularly in the Playoffs, where he has struggled to push the football downfield against stiffer competition, which was the case in each of their last two postseason defeats. For example, in last year’s loss at home to the Minnesota Vikings he was pressured throughout the affair, and could average just 4.72 net yards per attempt.
“If there’s one thing I wish I could take back from the game it would be that… Otherwise, we had a lot of metal errors. I felt like we were not playing as fast and just as sure and confident.”Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints Quarterback
With two games in the books, that alarming trend has continued into this current campaign, with a number of the luxuries that he’s typically enjoyed betraying him. After all, thanks to COVID-19 Brees and the Saints (along with every other team in the league) have been deprived of a proper team offseason, and the physical (and mental) preparation that it provides. As a result, his body (and particularly his right arm) looks to be falling apart ahead of schedule; in that loss to the Raiders, he only completed two passes of over twenty yards, though it should also be noted that he continuously missed on shorter passes that we’re accustomed to seeing him make in his sleep. The numbers back this up; Brees is averaging just 4.9 intended air yards per pass attempt thus far, down from 6.4 in 2019, with 18.2% of his throws being off target, up from 10.7% last year. Perhaps it’s a lack of rhythm and timing that has afflicted his performance? It also doesn’t help to be missing Thomas, who set an NFL Record with 149 receptions for 1,725 yards and 9 touchdowns last year, and since joining the team back in 2016 has hauled in a whopping 473 catches for 5,529 yards and thirty-two touchdowns. Yes, adding some variety in the form of the aforementioned Sanders was intended to make the passing attack less predictable, but watching him drop back to pass and scan the field without the 27-year old has been akin to watching a blockbuster movie franchise with the most glaring of plot holes. Father time is undefeated, folks, and while some athletes manage to put him on hold longer than others, he always comes to collect in the end. In regards to Brees, the signs have been there for a bit now, only to become far more pronounced in this most unconventional of campaigns.