New Orleans Saints (5-0) at New England Patriots (4-1)
The Patriots had their worst offensive performance since 2006 last week. It was the first time since 2006 that they scored fewer than 7 points in a game. On top of that, Brady hadn’t had a completion percentage that low since 2007. Fortunately, help should be on its way. Stevan Ridley will be back to give them another option on the ground. Danny Amendola, who played on just 62% of snaps last week in his first game back from injury, is expected to be a starter and play close to a full snap count. The biggest boost, however, is that Rob Gronkowski is expected to return.
Gronkowski might not be 100% in his first game back, but his presence on the field alone is going to help them tremendously and he should also be very productive in the passing game, especially around the goal line. The Patriots are 31st in red zone scoring percentage this season, scoring a touchdown on just 35.3% red zone opportunities, only ahead of Jacksonville. This is opposed to last year, when they scored a touchdown on 67.5% of red zone opportunities, 3rd in the NFL. The absence of the 6-6 Gronkowski, who has scored 36 times in his last 35 full games, undoubtedly has a ton to do with that.
Over the past 2 seasons, Rob Gronkowski has played in 10 full games. In those 10 games, Tom Brady completed 65.1% of his passes for an average of 7.6 YPA, 21 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions. He’s missed 13 games, including playoffs. In those 13 games, Brady has completed 58.1% of his passes for an average of 7.0 YPA, 24 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions. Gronk returning won’t solve all of his problems, but it’ll have a significant impact.
I also expect Brady himself to play better. He didn’t play well against the Bengals. It wasn’t just on his receiving corps. However, this is the type of situation he usually dominates in, when he’s doubted and when he’s facing a tough opponent. In his career, Tom Brady is 26-11 straight up against opponents with a better record than his. Just think about that. Teams usually win 38.4% against teams with a better record than the other one. Tom Brady has won 70.3% of such games. Against the spread, he’s even better, going 27-9-1 ATS, including 10-4 ATS even as favorites. Even though the Patriots are being favored here, most people don’t expect them to win. The public is pounding the Saints as underdogs. Usually, the public loses and the odds makers win. There’s a reason for that.
The Patriots aren’t big favorites though, as favorites of just a point and a half. They pretty much need to win straight up. Tom Brady usually dominates against the spread in situations where he just needs to win straight up, going 39-15 ATS in his career in that situation, including 12-3 ATS at home. Tom Brady also usually dominates off a loss. He is 26-15 ATS off a loss, including 16-8 ATS off a loss as favorites. Since 2003, he’s lost back-to-back games just 5 times, going 29-5 SU off a loss. I expect the Patriots to be at their sharpest in their biggest test this season here and win. Remember, their defense has been incredible, as opponents have moved the chains on 67% of chances this season. Even without Vince Wilfork, they played great defense against the Bengals.
This would be a higher confidence play if not for two things. One is the possibility that Brady is more at fault for their slow start than we think. The Patriots are moving the chains on 70% of chances this season. For a team that was moving the chains at about an 85% rate in 2012, that’s unheard of. Tom Brady needs to take some of the blame. He hasn’t played well this season.
Discomfort with new receivers is a factor, but he has a negative passing grade on ProFootballFocus, who usually does a good job of determining who is at fault. It’s possible he’s turning into late career Dan Marino. He definitely has diminished arm strength, but that alone wouldn’t hold him back. Peyton Manning has diminished arm strength, but that doesn’t seem to affect him. It’s something to watch going forward and something that holds me back from being too confident in the Patriots.
The other is just how good the Saints have been playing this season. They are moving the chains at an 81% rate offensively. That’s no surprise, considering how well the Saints’ offense has played since Drew Brees came to town. However, they have been very good defensively as well, as opponents have moved the chains on 68% of opportunities, which is absurd considering they set the NFL record for yards allowed last season and ranked 31st in the NFL in points allowed.
Rob Ryan’s new defensive scheme has made a huge difference and allowed young players like Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette to break out. That 13% differential is best in the NFL, even ahead of Denver, whose defense is suspect. I really wish we were getting points with the Patriots. However, they should still be the right side and I’m pretty confident in that. One final note, if Gronk is surprisingly ruled out, I’ll drop this to a low confidence pick. Don’t actually put any money on the Patriots until Gronk’s status is confirmed.
Final update: Gronk is out, but I’ve decided to leave this as a medium confidence pick. The Patriots’ history with Tom Brady in this type of game is too powerful to ignore. I’m running the risk that these aren’t the same old Patriots anymore, but it’s a risk I’m willing to take.
New England Patriots 27 New Orleans Saints 20
Pick against spread: New England -1