New Orleans Saints @ Buffalo Bills
Start-time: Monday, 01:30
TV: Live on Sky Sports Action
Saints' vulnerabilities to be exposed by McCoy and Taylor
Although they hail from different conferences, it's still hard to believe these two teams have squared up just 10 times with the New Orleans Saints winning six. That said, with both New Orleans and Buffalo sporting fresh, expansive gameplans this season (which offer both side a path to the postseason) perhaps this is a match where any history between them was always going to count for very little.
The Saints, of course, have long been an offensive powerhouse in the NFC, with future hall of famer, Drew Brees, tugging the reins. In short, there are no brakes on the car that Brees drives. For when all the engines are optimised, his juggernaut crashes through the collapsing scenery of rival defences with reckless abandon.
Some of that wrecking-ball spirit has been tempered this term, however, with a new pass-run balance in evidence. Running men Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara have clicked into a higher gear to afford New Orleans an added dimension which has, in turn, naturally freed up Brees' throwing arm (notably to rising star Ted Ginn Jnr) for more productive-if-sparing employment.
Head coach Sean Payton has also impressed with the re-imagining of his notoriously leaky defense. Cornerback Marshon Lattimore is certainly an emerging force among the bulwark ranks of their front seven (rival quarterbacks have a passer rating against of just 37.4 when he's in coverage) but it is the Saints' wider strategy that seems to be paying off.
Chiefly, New Orleans have blitzed on 39% of their defensive snaps this season, bringing the heat to opposing QBs. It's the sixth-highest total in the league, yet they did it even more last season - and over the previous two years when they were ranked last or penultimate in Football Outsiders' defensive rankings.
It's a high-risk tactic, but they've given up more than 200 yards through the air only once during the current campaign. So, after six successive victories, have these leopards truly changed their spots, or are they sinners masquerading as Saints? The jury is still out in my book. When this secondary start to miss, things could get ugly. And quickly.
Therefore, the question is can Buffalo take advantage, when those New Orleans wheels begin to loosen, as they surely will on the road here. Well, considering they haven't made the play-offs this century, one would typically counter that the Bills tend to come up short in the clutch. However, that would reckon without a gifted and mobile QB, a superstar backfield bull in Sean McCoy, and a secondary that has specialized in snaffling more valuable takeaways than any Saturday-night street feast.
Bills' run defense will be key
Their Achilles heel is defending the run, a weak link which the New York Jets exploited to the fullest last week. So Buffalo must find a way to stop Ingram and Kamara, and wrest control of the clock back with their very own Shady. McCoy has already rushed for 546 yards and three touchdowns this season (why not throw in another 242 at receiver) and his twin-threat gains could ramp up tonight. Tyrod Taylor's versatility under center has also helped the Bills secure a 4-0 standing at home, so New Era Field could belatedly be about to live up to its name. Especially with the recent acquisition from Carolina of Kelvin Benjamin, a genuine number-one receiver to finally inspire some skillful rookies. Benjamin participated in full training this week, and looks committed to the cause.
So all things considered, I expect previous defensive frailties to return for the Saints tonight, and then it will just be that age-old question of whether Brees can keep up in the score. He may well outstrip Taylor, but I really feel Buffalo should be marginal favourites at their fortress. Take some helpful handicaps accordingly.
Back Buffalo Bills (+3) to win on the Match Handicap @ 1.9110/11 or better
Back Buffalo Bills (+1.5) to win on the First Half Points Spread @ 2.26/5 or better
Back L.McCoy to score First / Anytime Touchdown @ 8.07/1 / 1.9110/11 or better