Defense faces stiff test

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Monday's visit to New Orleans presents the biggest challenge of the year for the Patriots' defense. It also provides the best opportunity for redemption.

Two weeks ago in Indianapolis, the Patriots' brazen and much-ballyhooed attempt at a fourth-and-2 conversion late in the fourth quarter of a 35-34 loss to the Colts was perceived by some as a lack of faith in the team's defense.

Stepping back into the national spotlight against the league-leading and potentially record-breaking Saints offense, New England's defense understands this isn't just another game.

"Everybody's watching," said Patriots cornerback Jonathan Wilhite.

"The players have it in their minds, too, and even the coaches know. It's a big game and you only have a few times each year to have all eyes on you. It's a special moment."

The Patriots' last foray onto national television ended with pundits from coast to coast questioning the common sense of their head coach and talking about the fact his play calling suggested absolutely no faith in his defense.

Yet, amidst all the handwringing about New England's defense, it's easy to overlook the fact the unit ranks second in the league to the Colts in points allowed per game (16.4) and is seventh best in total defense (296.7 yards per game).

The Patriots' defense -- which has allowed more than 24 points just once this season, against the Colts -- rebounded with a strong effort last week against the Jets. Though, surely, there's a difference in going from rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez to MVP candidate Drew Brees, it's probably best to judge the unit on its body of work this season rather than on one play it had no control over.

Regardless, there's a tall task in front of the group this week.

While the Colts' offense is potent, the Saints top the NFL by averaging 36.9 points and 420.5 yards of total offense per game. New England's defense understands the challenge it's facing this week and hopes to use the motivation from that Indianapolis loss.

Just read between the lines of what safety Brandon Meriweather said earlier this week.

"Indianapolis does one thing great; this team does everything else great," Meriweather said. "Just going into that atmosphere [in Indianapolis] and taking what we took from that game ... [it was] not necessarily playing against [the Colts] that will help us against this team that much, but some of the things that we took out of that game will."

Like the gigantic chip on their shoulders. The Patriots' defense can't go back and prove they could have kept Manning out of the end zone over the final two minutes on a long field, but New England's defense can show it's better than what people are giving it credit for.

"We've played against some good teams this year and some teams that can move the ball around," Wilhite said. "But this is going to be a team that can beat you right off the start. Being in the NFL, every week you've got to be ready to go, but this is one of those weeks that you have to study a little more and watch a little more film. This game, everybody is going to be watching us. This is going to be the game to make a stand."

This isn't the first time the Patriots have arrived at the Superdome with something to prove.

A little less than eight years ago, the Patriots were 14-point underdogs heading into Super Bowl XXXVI against the Rams, due in large part to St. Louis' prolific offense.

As New England prepares to meet the equally offensive Saints and the Latest Show of Turf, the Vegas oddsmakers have toned down the overall spread of the game, but the over/under suggests the hosts should still score upward of 30 points in Monday's game.

A show of respect to the Saints' offense? Or yet another sign of a lack of faith in the New England defense?

When a reporter suggested to cornerback Terrence Wheatley earlier this week that maybe the Patriots needed to brace themselves for giving up at least 21 points, Wheatley wasn't quite ready to concede.

As preposterous as it sounds, the Patriots enter the game with the goal of keeping the Saints out of the end zone.

"That's not your goal going into the game. You want to hold them to zero points," Wheatley said. "You just try to play the best that you can; hold them to as [few] points as you can. You don't want them to get one first down, or one yard on anything. We do understand that Drew Brees is going to get his and that's just the way it is, but you've got to be able to remain focused, remain poised, and just execute. And the rest will take care of itself."

The Patriots' defense is well aware of what it's going up against: the big-play ability, the balance between the rush-pass, the 18 different players that have scored for the Saints this year. They've heard all about the big, physical receivers and Brees' ability to pick any defense apart.

But this isn't just another appearance on "Monday Night Football." It's not just another battle against an undefeated opponent. For the Patriots' defense, it's a chance at redemption -- two weeks in the making.

"It's going to be a challenge for us," Meriweather said, "and we're up for it."

Chris Forsberg is a roving reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.