Whether it was intentional or not, the NFL's 2013 regular-season schedule included an interesting wrinkle with the timing of a Patriots-Saints clash, which will take place in Week 6 in Foxborough.
Tom Brady owns a streak of 48 consecutive games with at least one touchdown pass, the second-longest in NFL history. As it turns out, Saints quarterback Drew Brees is the owner of the record, as he amassed a 54-game streak that was halted during the 2012 regular season.
Should Brady's passing fortunes continue through the first five games of the regular season, he'll have a shot to tie Brees' record when the two quarterbacks square off in what (at least on paper) looks to be an exciting showdown.
The Saints present multiple challenges beyond just Brees and should be improved from a disappointing 2012 with the return of their head coach Sean Payton. Payton was suspended for the entire 2012 season as part of the league's investigation into what became known as "Bountygate." With Payton patrolling the sidelines again, New Orleans is hopeful to return to the top tier of the NFC.
Here's a challenge the Patriots will face on either side of the ball.
Offense: One of the appealing aspects for the Patriots to linebacker Jamie Collins' game was likely his upside as a potential sub package linebacker. With impressive athleticism, Collins may evolve into a capable coverage linebacker who can stick with running backs from the backfield as well as tight ends. That was an area the Patriots struggled with down the stretch in 2012, as both Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower were at times overmatched as play-in-space linebackers. The Saints offense is high-octane and features several quality receivers, including running back Darren Sproles and tight end Jimmy Graham. Sproles may just be the best pass-catching back in the league, and is effective in the screen game. He's slippery and lightning-quick, and will be a challenge to contain. Graham rivals Rob Gronkowski among pass-catching tight ends, and is a sensational red zone target due to his elite athleticism. Stopping the Saints' pass offense is always a tall order, but the Patriots will have to work hard to slow down Sproles and Graham.
Defense: The Saints defense was historically bad in 2012, but optimism rests in the hiring of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and secondary fortifications Kenny Vaccaro and Keenan Lewis. Let's focus on Ryan, who of course has familiarity with Bill Belichick and the Patriots, having served on his staff from 2000-2003 as the linebackers coach. Ryan-coached defenses have impressively contained the Patriots in recent meetings, notably in a 34-14 victory for the Browns back in 2010 when Ryan was the coordinator for Cleveland. One of the tenants of Ryan's defense against the Patriots was contrived confusion at the line of scrimmage. Ryan varied the looks of his defensive front, using linemen in stand-up formation and disguising his pressures. Brady is a master of identifying defensive schemes at the line of scrimmage, but the unconventional looks from Ryan proved to be difficult to decipher pre-snap. Ryan has brought his 3-4 system with him to New Orleans, and one can suspect this Week 6 game will be a compelling chess match on the field between the quarterback and coordinator.