8:15 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Saints -7.5, Over/Under: 50.5
For those of you who believe that life functions in the form of a cycle, look no further than tonight’s matchup as the New Orleans Saints host the Los Angeles Chargers on Monday Night Football from Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana. Back in 2001, the Chargers (then of San Diego) spent the thirty-second overall pick of the NFL Draft on a short yet prolific Quarterback from Purdue named Drew Brees, who would go on to spend five years with the franchise, kicking off what would be a successful decade of football. However, the club would allow him to leave as Free Agent, and given the high degree of success that he’s enjoyed there have been many that no doubt pondered just what could have been had he remained with the lightning bolts. Now with his career nearly over, the Chargers (1-3, T-3rd in AFC West) meet their former franchise passer with one of their own, or at least they hope he develops into one. Los Angeles selected Justin Herbert (72.0%, 931 YDS, 7.90 NY/A, 5 TD, 3 INT, 69.3 QBR) with the sixth overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, and thanks to some curious actions of the team’s doctor, have thrust him into action ahead of schedule, though the early returns have been rather promising.
While we’re not going to go into the specifics of what has happened to the Chargers’ intended Starting Quarterback, Tyrod Taylor (53.3%, 208 YDS, 6.47 NY/A, 0 TD, 0 INT, 25.6 QBR), we’ll instead touch upon the rise of Herbert, which has indeed been ahead of schedule, as Head Coach, Anthony Lynn, had every intention of bringing the rookie along slowly. However, that simply wouldn’t be the case, as Taylor’s injury necessitated his promotion at the last possible moment; Lynn seriously notified him that he would be starter in the tunnel as he and his teammates stepped on the field, against the reigning Super Bowl Champion, Kansas City Chiefs, no less. With that said, the 22-year old handled himself much better than anyone could have predicted, guiding Los Angeles to a surprising 17-6 lead midway through the Third Quarter, highlighted by a 4-yard touchdown run on the opening drive, and 14-yard strike to Jalen Guyton (5 REC, 125 YDS, 25.0 Y/R, 2 TD) just before Halftime. Granted, the Chiefs would rally back on the strength of some amazing throws courtesy of Patrick Mahomes, eventually winning the affair in Overtime, 23-20, but for all intents and purposes the young signal-caller impressed, completing 22-of-33 passes for 311 yards with a touchdown and an interception, along with that aforementioned rushing score. The following weekend it was more of the same: an inspiring performance from the young Quarterback despite taking another loss. This time against the Carolina Panthers, Lynn’s charges started off very slowly, with three of their first five drives ending in a turnover, a pair of fumbles and an interception, one of each credited to Herbert. Eventually the hosts would crawl back into the contest, with the rook cutting the Panthers’ lead to 21-16 with just over four minutes to play via a 14-yard touchdown to Pro-Bowl Receiver, Keenan Allen (32 REC, 327 YDS, 10.2 Y/R, 1 TD). However, the two-point conversion failed, and after their Defense forced a punt, in turn receiving the football from their own 1-yard line with 1:46 left on the clock, Herbert would lead his side downfield to the Carolina 28-yard line, where their rally came to a crushing end as Allen fumbled after a short pass, losing possession and any hope of victory. At the end of the day, Herbert crossed the 300-yard threshold once again, this time for 330 yards on 35-of-49 passing, moving the chains throughout the affair as Los Angeles converted a stellar 10-of-15 third downs en route to piling up 436 total yards, but their four turnovers proved extremely costly in the 21-16 defeat. While Lynn has been rather cautious in heaping much praise upon his young Quarterback (at all), the franchise must be pleased with how he has performed in the early stages of the campaign, though the fact that they haven’t found a way to parlay his play into wins must be concerning.
“We have to get over the hump… We have to learn to close big games. When we are up 17 points, we can’t shoot ourselves in the foot.”Justin Herbert, Los Angeles Chargers Quarterback
When we last saw the Chargers, it was deja vu as they once again relinquished a sizable lead, this time blowing a 17-point advantage in a 38-31 loss on the road at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. After the hosts traveled seventy-five yards in ten plays ending in a touchdown n their opening drive, Los Angeles would then run off twenty-four unanswered points; Herbert found the end zone twice via 53-yard and 19-yard strikes to Receiver, Tyron Johnson (1 REC, 53 YDS, 53.0 Y/R, 1 TD), and Tight End, Donald Parham (1 REC, 19 YDS, 19.0 Y/R, 1 TD), bookending a 78-yard interception return for score courtesy of Cornerback, Michael Davis (19 TKL, 1 INT 3 PD, 1 TD). Owning a 24-7 lead at Halftime, the visitors had to be feeling good about themselves, but unfortunately the Bucs had this guy you may have heard of named Tom Brady, who proceeded to torment them once again with a virtuoso rally. As the future Hall of Famer promptly engineered four consecutive scoring drives, the Chargers own Offense went into the proverbial can, punting twice, missing a field goal, with Herbert throwing an interception on their final possession. An ailing hamstring forced Tailback, Austin Ekeler (66 TCH, 392 YDS, 5.9 Y/T, 1 TD), to leave the field at the end of the First Quarter, which really killed the running game, as Los Angeles managed a scant forty-six yards on twenty-three carries and therefore possessed the football for only 25:05. Furthermore, the Defense, which is without stars such as Safety, Derwin James, and Edge-Rusher, Melvin Ingram (2 TKL, 1 INT, 2 PD), was throttled by the home side, who hung 484 total yards on them, including 115 yards on the ground and 369 passing yards and five touchdowns from Brady. Making matters worse for the Lightning Bolts is the familiar image of a banged up Offensive Line, that was without Starting Tackles, Bryan Bulaga (Back) and Trai Turner (Groin), along with four-time Pro-Bowl Center, Mike Pouncey (Hip), who is now on Injured Reserve.
Meanwhile, it’s only fitting that in what is widely believed to be his final season as a professional Quarterback that Drew Brees (71.3%, 1,006 YDS, 7.21 NY/A, 8 TD, 2 INT, 78.4 QBR) will get the opportunity to end his career with a meeting with the team that welcomed him into the league twenty years ago. As we touched upon earlier, Brees spent five years with the Chargers, going 30-28 (.517) as their Starting Quarterback, leading them to an AFC West Title in 2004. However, the club would draft his eventual replacement, Philip Rivers, that same year, and after suffering a significant shoulder injury in the 2005 Pro Bowl, he was allowed to leave the franchise, deemed no long in their plans. Though he flirted with other clubs, the future Hall of Famer would eventually land with the Saints (2-2, 2nd in NFC South), beginning a fruitful marriage that would last for fifteen years, ushering in an age of success for a team (and not to mention city) in dire need of it; along with Head Coach, Sean Payton, Brees would guide New Orleans to a 135-85 record (.614), including eight postseason appearances, six NFC South Titles (including each of the last three), and a Super Bowl Championship in 2009, all the while building his own individual portfolio, currently standing as the league all-time leader in a slew of categories including passing attempts (10,290), completions (6,959), yards (78,422), and touchdowns (555).
However, after suffering three consecutive heartbreaks in the Playoffs, there is a real sense that this could be end for the 41-year old in the Big Easy, even despite posting the best record in the league over the past three seasons (39-13) and leading it in completion percentage each year. With that said, father time is undefeated, and with COVID-19 rocking the world of sports and leaving every team in the league without the benefit of a proper Offseason of conditioning and preparation, it’s elderstatesmen were always set to be effected the most, with the thirteen-time Pro-Bowler being no different. Indeed, it’s been a slow march for Brees, whose arm strength and historic accuracy appeared well below their typical standards early on. In the Season Opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he could only muster 18-of-30 completions for 160 yards, averaging a paltry 5.3 yards per attempt. However, those figures would gradually rise over the following few weeks, which is indicative of a veteran Quarterback slowly playing his way back into shape. Since the Opener, he’s quite frankly looked fine, particularly over the last outings in which he’s completed an accurate 78.7% of his attempts for an average of 267.0 yards on 8.8 yards per attempt, with five touchdowns in comparison to just one interception. It bears stating that he and the Offense have been without the presence of the most prolific Receiver in the NFL over the past few seasons, with All-Pro, Michael Thomas (3 REC, 17 YDS, 5.7 Y/R, 0 TD), having been sidelined since midway through the Opener with a high ankle sprain. Since being selected forty-seventh overall in the 2016 NFL Draft, Thomas has hauled in a staggering 473 receptions, 5,529 receiving yards, and thirty-two touchdowns, leading the league in receptions in each of the past two seasons (125 and 149), the latter of which set a new NFL record. Even without the services of Thomas and Brees slowly finding his way back into recognizable form, the Saints have still be one of the better Offenses, ranking fifth in points (30.8), fourth in turnovers (3), ninth in net yards per attempt (7.4), second in third down percentage (52.9%), and twelfth in the red zone (66.7%). Furthermore, Payton has recognized the situation and adjusted accordingly, shifting the emphasis of the attack to the ground, with New Orleans gradually producing more and more in running game, totaling 112, 122, and 164 rushing yards after amassing just eighty-two against Tampa Bay. Pro-Bowl Tailback, Alvin Kamara (50 CAR, 236 YDS, 4.7 Y/C, 4 TD), is already justifying the lucrative investment that the club made in him this past Offseason (5-years/$75 million extension, $33.833 million guaranteed), totaling 557 yards from scrimmage and seven touchdowns, averaging a healthy 7.0 yards per touch.
“Drew was outstanding… We had them guessing for most of the first half of the game. Our guys up front did a really good job at the line of scrimmage.”Sean Payton, New Orleans Saints Head Coach
When we last saw the Saints, they managed to get back to .500 with a 35-29 victory on the road at the Detroit Lions, which saw the visitors rally back from an early fourteen-point deficit. With Detroit marching seventy-seven yards downfield to take a seven-point lead, Brees was intercepted on his first pass of the evening trying to reach veteran Receiver, Emmanuel Sanders (14 REC, 182 YDS, 13.0 Y/R, 2 TD), which allowed the hosts to double their lead shortly thereafter. However, rather than panic, New Orleans would catch fire as they promptly ran off thirty-five unanswered points, with Brees leading them on five consecutive scoring drives four of which were of seventy-five yards or more. The Lions would rally back with back-to-back touchdowns of their own, but it would ultimately be a case of too little too late in the end. Brees concluded the day with 246 yards and a pair of touchdowns and an interception on 19-of-25 passing, while Kamara totaled 119 yards from scrimmage and a score on twenty-two touches, with fellow Tailback, Latavius Murray (44 CAR, 184 YDS, 4.2 Y/C, 2 TD), adding another sixty-four rushing yards and two touchdowns of his own on fourteen carries. The final score would lead you to believe that this contest was rather close, but that really wasn’t the case as Payton’s charges bested Detroit in the following categories: total yards (392-281), first downs (29-18), rushing yards (164-90), passing yards (246-203), third down (10/14-7/14), and time of possession (36:46). In lieu of what is for all intents and purposes his last battle with his former employers, Brees has never lost to the Chargers in three meetings, completing 67.2% of his attempts for 916 yards, nine touchdowns and three interceptions.