8:30 PM ET, November 30, 2009
Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans, LA
The New Orleans Saints' bid for a 16-0 regular season is about to face its toughest test yet -- the only team in NFL history to accomplish the feat.
The high-powered Saints put their perfect record on the line Monday night in the Superdome against a New England Patriots club that nearly knocked off the league's other unbeaten two weeks ago.
The Saints have steamrolled through the league while winning their first 10 games, averaging 36.9 points behind quarterback Drew Brees and a dynamic offense that's seen 12 different players score touchdowns.
Such a run might seem unprecedented if it hadn't been done even better two short years ago. The 2007 Patriots also opened 10-0 while averaging an almost unfathomable 41.1 points. They went on to achieve the NFL's only perfect 16-game regular season, though their run ultimately ended with bitter disappointment and a 17-14 Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants.
While New England completed its unbeaten regular season, it also provided a cautionary tale on how difficult that feat is to achieve. The Patriots blew out their first 10 opponents by an average of 24.4 points, but that margin dwindled to 10.2 over the final six weeks with three of those contests decided by only a field goal.
A similar struggle could be in store for this year's Saints, who have taken advantage of opponents with a combined 37-63 record but must face New England (7-3) and NFC East-leading Dallas before season's end.
"We can learn a little bit from them and what happened to them and know you can't take any game lightly," said Saints running back Reggie Bush, who expects to play Monday after sitting out last week's 38-7 win at Tampa Bay due to swelling in his left knee.
"Any given Sunday you can be beat by any team no matter what the record is. We're finding ways to win and no matter how much you win by or how (little) you win by, a win is a win in this league. ... Even the worst team in the league has great all-star players."
The Patriots have more great players than most, especially on offense. Tom Brady has hit his stride after missing nearly all of last season due to knee surgery, exceeding 300 passing yards in each of his last five games while throwing for 14 touchdowns in that span. While Randy Moss has drawn much of the coverage from opposing defenses, fellow wideout Wes Welker has taken advantage by catching a league-leading 79 passes despite sitting out two September games with a knee injury.
In last week's 31-14 victory over the New York Jets, Welker caught 15 passes for 192 yards -- both career highs.
"We play those guys straight up but their one-two punch got the best of us," Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis said. "On one play, (Welker) did a triple move that was crazy, man. He's great."
The Saints' offense is also great, with depth a major reason for its success. Running backs Pierre Thomas and Mike Bell have rushed for more than 500 yards apiece, while Bush has scored five TDs and is averaging 5.0 yards per carry as a change-of-pace option. Leading the entire unit, Brees has thrown touchdowns to nine different receivers including six scoring passes apiece to wideouts Marques Colston and Robert Meachem.
"One of the things that our quarterback does well is read defenses and recognizes the weaknesses of defenses," New Orleans head coach Sean Payton said. "We've had to insert some players in because of injury, and some of those guys have stepped up. ... A number of receivers have gotten their hands on balls."
Though New Orleans is trying to establish itself among the NFL's elite and the Patriots have won three Super Bowls this decade, New England may also enter this contest feeling the need to prove itself. The Patriots nearly dealt Indianapolis -- the NFL's other 10-0 team -- its lone defeat two weeks ago, but squandered a 17-point fourth-quarter lead in a 35-34 loss marked by coach Bill Belichick's failed fourth-and-2 gamble with two minutes remaining.
Perhaps the Patriots will be inspired by returning to the site of one of their greatest triumphs. This will be New England's first game in the Superdome since beating St. Louis in 2002 for its first Super Bowl title on Adam Vinatieri's last-second field goal.
"You never forget that day," Brady said. "That was pretty unbelievable for all of us. A lot of us you know, your first chance to play in a Super Bowl and winning the Super Bowl, and of course the circumstances of that year with 9-11 happening and U2 performing at halftime -- that was pretty unbelievable."
The underdog Patriots may have been fan favorites on that day, but they know this time the sell-out crowd will be loudly cheering its beloved Saints, who may be poised for their first Super Bowl run.
"You can just tell by the fans how badly they want it," said Patriots running back and Louisiana native Kevin Faulk. "They always did love the Saints. They just didn't have enough to cheer for."
New England is 4-0 in its regular-season visits to the Superdome, and 8-3 against the Saints overall including victories in the last three meetings.
More from ESPN.com
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Pats-Saints: 10 observations
After breaking down film of both teams, Scouts Inc. offers 10 things to watch in this week's Patriots-Saints matchup.
1. Can Tom Brady catch the Saints in blitzes? In the past couple of weeks, defenses have concentrated on stopping Randy Moss on the deep ball with combo coverages, which leave Wes Welker in a lot of one-on-one coverages. The Saints cannot sit back and let Brady have time to pick them apart. When they do blitz, Brady will get good one-on-one matchups against corners who aren't 100 percent healthy.
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|Avg Points Allowed||18.4||20.1|
Team Averages & NFL Ranks
|TEAM OFFENSE||TEAM||PER GAME AVERAGE|
|TEAM DEFENSE||TEAM||PER GAME AVERAGE|
|Pass Yds Allowed||NE|
|Rush Yds Allowed||NE|
Head to Head Matchups (Since 2001)
|New England leads 2-1|
|Nov 20, 2005||NE 24, NO 17|
|Nov 25, 2001||NE 34, NO 17|