- Mike Triplett, ESPN Staff Writer
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You might think that the New Orleans Saints’ next opponents -- the New England Patriots -- need no introduction. They’ve been one of the most high-profile franchises in the NFL for more than a decade, led by two future Hall of Famers in coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady.
But beyond those two stalwarts, the Patriots have been constantly reinventing themselves over the years. And now, they’re about as unrecognizable as ever. They’re 4-1, but for the first time in a long time, the offense has sputtered at times -- hitting its low point in last week’s 13-6 loss at Cincinnati.
Brady has been less productive than usual (7 TDs, 3 INTs and a completion percentage of 56.6) while throwing to a group of practical strangers. His longtime favorite target Wes Welker is gone, now thriving with the Denver Broncos. And his more recent go-to guy Rob Gronkowski has been hurt all season -- though Gronk may return Sunday against the Saints. The running backs have also been dinged by key injuries. As a result, the Patriots’ offense has been inconsistent, especially in the red zone, where they rank 31st in the NFL.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. New England’s offense looked great two weeks ago in a 30-23 victory at Atlanta. And Gronkowski and new top receiver Danny Amendola are on the mend.
Meanwhile, the Patriots’ defense has been excellent, even with a recent season-ending injury to longtime nose tackle Vince Wilfork. New England ranks second in the NFL in points allowed (14.0) and 16th in yards allowed (345.0).
Here are a few more details on the Patriots:
This week’s game: Saints (5-0) at Patriots (4-1), Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET, Gillette Stadium, Foxboro, Mass.
Series history: The Patriots lead the all-time series 8-4. The Saints won the most recent meeting, four years ago in a memorable 38-17 Monday night rout in the Superdome during their 2009 Super Bowl run. Before that, the Patriots won three straight, including wins in Foxboro in 2001 and 2005.
Worth noting: New England has the best home record in the NFL since 2008 (36-6, 2-0 this year). The Saints have the league’s best road record since 2009 (23-11, 2-0 this year).
Three players to know on Offense:
1. QB Tom Brady. One of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, the 36-year-old has remained elite in recent years. He actually had the two highest yardage totals of his career in 2011 (5,235) and 2012 (4,827) with a combined 73 touchdown passes and 20 interceptions. He’s been more inconsistent than usual this year, though -- clearly hampered by the lack of consistency around him. New young receivers have struggled with dropped passes, and injuries have shuffled the lineup at receiver, tight end and running back. Brady has made some mistakes of his own, too, though – including a rare interception late in the rainy conditions at Cincinnati last week.
2. TE Rob Gronkowski. The big, 6-foot-6, 265-pound target has 39 career touchdowns in just 43 career games played. But he’s battled injuries for the past two seasons and had a reported five surgeries on his back and forearm since last season. If he comes back Sunday, he should still be limited. But Brady will be especially happy to see him in the red zone.
3. WR Danny Amendola. The 5-11, 195-pounder just returned himself from a groin injury last week, though he was still a bit limited. The Patriots signed Amendola as a free agent from the St. Louis Rams this offseason to try and replace Welker as a shifty and sure-handed receiver in the middle of the field. If he’s close to 100 percent, he could be Brady’s most targeted guy on Sunday.
Three players to know on Defense:
1. CB Aqib Talib. The physical 6-1, 205-pound corner has been outstanding this season with four interceptions, a forced fumble and eight pass break-ups. He’s been shadowing top receivers more than the Patriots used to do in the past. Talib had some good matchups in the past against Saints receiver Marques Colston when he was with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And it’s not completely out of the question that he could spend some time covering tight end Jimmy Graham.
2. OLB Rob Ninkovich. Too bad the Saints weren’t playing a 3-4 defense when they had Ninkovich in camp as both a rookie in 2006 and again in 2009. They never could find the right fit for the 6-foot-2, 260-pounder, even trying him at long snapper. But he has found a home with the Patriots. He has a sack and a forced fumble this year and a total of 19.5 sacks, four interceptions and seven forced fumbles over the past four years.
3. OLB Jerod Mayo. A two-time Pro Bowler and former Defensive Rookie of the Year, Mayo has been a tackling machine in his six-year career. He has 49 tackles this year (two shy of the NFL lead). He ranked fourth in the league last year with 147 and led the league in 2010 with 175. The 6-1, 250-pounder also has nine sacks, eight forced fumbles and three interceptions in his career.