Somewhere in a private box at the Louisiana Superdome, Sean Payton, Mickey Loomis and Joe Vitt will sit and watch Drew Brees try to set an NFL record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass.
Not to mention get the Saints out of their worst slide in years.
That suspended trio — coach Payton is sidelined for the season, general manager Loomis for eight games, interim coach Vitt for six for their roles in the bounties scandal — was given permission by the NFL to attend Sunday night’s game against San Diego, but can’t interact with Brees or the other players.
Brees tied Hall of Famer John Unitas’ mark of 47 straight, set from 1956-60 by throwing for three scores in a loss at Green Bay last weekend. Then he asked Commissioner Roger Goodell about allowing the coaches and GM to attend on Sunday.
“It would mean a lot, and that’s why I asked,” Brees said. “Of course they know how this team feels about all those people and what a big part they are in our journey despite the circumstances. And the fact that we have the opportunity to break the Johnny Unitas record, and I say `we’ because it is a team deal, and Joe Vitt is a part of that, Sean Payton is a part of that and Mickey Loomis is a part of that. They are all a part of that, and I felt like they certainly deserved the opportunity to be there in attendance and share that moment with us.”
While the Saints are one of two 0-4 teams, along with Cleveland, the Chargers (3-1) are on top of the AFC West. Their three wins are over Oakland, Kansas City and Tennessee, all 1-3. When they played a contender — at home — the Chargers were routed by Atlanta.
So this could be something of a proving ground for San Diego, because beating even a winless Saints squad in New Orleans never is a Big Easy. And with emotions running wild over Brees’ pursuit of Unitas’ record — and with Payton, Loomis and Vitt on hand — the Chargers’ challenge is amplified.
“It’s the same team that’s made deep playoff runs and it’s the same team that’s won Super Bowls,” said Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, who replaced Brees as the starter in 2006, when Brees headed to New Orleans as a free agent. “We know what we’re in for Sunday night. I know just from the few guys that were on this team a few years ago and are now there, it’s a tough and resilient group. We’re going to have to play at our best if we expect to win on Sunday.”
Also Sunday, it’s Atlanta at Washington, Denver at New England, Philadelphia at Pittsburgh, Green Bay at Indianapolis, Baltimore at Kansas City, Cleveland at the New York Giants, Buffalo at San Francisco, Miami at Cincinnati, Seattle at Carolina, Chicago at Jacksonville, and Tennessee at Minnesota.
Houston is at the New York Jets on Monday night.
Off this week are Dallas (2-2), Detroit (1-3), Oakland (1-3), and Tampa Bay (1-3).
Atlanta (4-0) at Washington (2-2)
It is a measure of how far the Falcons have come this year that they can move from their 1-yard-line in the final moments to field goal position and beat the Panthers. It’s also a measure to see them with a league-best plus-10 turnover margin — the Falcons have only two giveaways and no fumbles lost — and a stingy pass defense. Atlanta has cured some major issues of the recent past.
“We’ve made a bunch of mistakes, but we’ve battled and we’ve been tough and we’ve fought through some of those things,” said Matt Ryan, among the league’s top quarterbacks through four games. “That’s what you have to do in this league. It’s never going to be perfect. That’s just the nature of the NFL.”
The Falcons got some helpful preparation for facing sensational rookie QB Robert Griffin III when they played 2011’s top offensive rookie, Cam Newton, last Sunday. But Griffin is part of a much better running game than the Panthers presented. That will test Atlanta’s ground defense, which ranks 29th.
Houston (4-0) at New York Jets (2-2), Monday night
Just what the reeling Jets need on the heels of their worst performance of the Rex Ryan era: a visit from the top-ranked team in the AP Pro32.
The Texans have had only one close game so far, have yielded the fewest points in the league (56), have scored the second most (126), have the top-rated defense in yards allowed and ... shall we continue?
“I think we have to get better,” Ryan said. “We can’t worry about who we play. The fact that we’re playing the team that is regarded as the best team in the National Football League, we have to improve ourselves. We have to go back and look at our football team first.”
Might be more enjoyable to look at what the Texans are doing, Rex.
Philadelphia (3-1) at Pittsburgh (1-2)
The Steelers have struggled, but with safety Troy Polamalu, LB James Harrison and RB Rashard Mendenhall expected back from injuries, they become a more formidable opponent. Pittsburgh has protected the ball well, but also has forced only three turnovers — hardly Steel Curtain football.
Everyone has profited in the turnover department against the Eagles, whose 12 giveaways are the most in the NFC. Philly has won its games by a total of four points.
Among the spiciest matchups will be the Eagles’ speed with running back LeSean McCoy and receivers DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin — not to mention quarterback Michael Vick — against a defense that has looked slow thus far.
Green Bay (2-2) at Indianapolis (1-2)
Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians steps in as interim coach for Indy while Chuck Pagano battles leukemia. That adds to the challenges the Colts are facing as they come off a bye week.
“Obviously, we know what’s going on and there’s no doubt everyone still has that in the back of our heads,” defensive end Cory Redding said. “But this team has to move on. We have to go out there and do our job.”
Doing it against the revitalized Packers’ offense will be extra difficult. Most of the matchups favor Green Bay, with the most intriguing perhaps being Packers center Jeff Saturday against the Colts’ interior defensive line. Saturday left Indy as a free agent this year after 13 seasons.
Baltimore (3-1) at Kansas City (1-3)
Kansas City has allowed 136 points overall and 77 in two home losses, hardly the right approach against a Baltimore team that has become dangerous offensively. Even worse, the Chiefs have the NFL’s most giveaways, 15, a bad sign against the Ravens’ ball-hawkers.
“You look across that defensive board and they’ve got a lot of great veteran leadership with Ed Reed, Haloti Ngata and then also obviously Ray Lewis,” Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel said. “But those guys have been playing together for a long time and they’re a very instinctive, very experienced group.”
After a busy opening four weeks, the Ravens finally are rested, having last played on Sept. 27.
Cleveland (0-4) at New York Giants (2-2)
The Giants recognize that they messed up late at Philly last Sunday night, costing them sole possession of the NFC East lead. With a brutal upcoming schedule, a victory against the winless Browns, ranked last in the AP Pro32, is a must.
Yet, the Giants have struggled in recent years against mediocre (or worse) opponents.
“I don’t know if it’s our preparation, I don’t know if it’s the mindset that we go in there with,” receiver Victor Cruz said. “Hopefully, we’ll gear up this week and be prepared for this team, no matter what their record is. They’re still a good football team, and we have to prepare ourselves to win a football game.”
Cleveland has lost 10 straight dating back to last season. It has shown sparks on offense with rookie RB Trent Richardson and QB Brandon Weeden, and has some playmakers on defense, particularly linebacker D’Qwell Jackson. Top cornerback Joe Haden has one more week on his suspension.
Buffalo (2-2) at San Francisco (3-1)
Early in the third quarter last week, the Bills led New England 21-7 and were envisioning a solo spot atop the AFC East. Then the Patriots stopped fooling around and soon were headed to a 52-28 romp.
The Niners aren’t likely to score that many points, but their fierce, opportunistic defense almost certainly won’t yield anything close to four touchdowns.
This could be an entertaining matchup on the ground with Buffalo’s Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller trying to outdo San Francisco’s Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter. It also could turn into a mismatch if Patrick Willis, Justin Smith and the rest of the 49ers’ defense shuts down the Bills’ running attack and forces Ryan Fitzpatrick to throw under duress. Fitzpatrick’s 12 TD passes top the league, but he’s also thrown seven interceptions.
Miami (1-3) at Cincinnati (3-1)
With two division matches after this, Cincinnati needs to pay attention against a Dolphins squad that lost its last two games in overtime, blowing leads in both. Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has been sensational late in games and has the best fourth-quarter passing rating in the NFL, 151.7.
The Dolphins have won six of their last seven visits to Cincinnati and have the NFL’s leading receiver in yards in Brian Hartline. But getting time to find him will be problematic for rookie QB Ryan Tannehill: The Bengals lead the NFL with 17 sacks.
“Our defensive linemen are very tall guys,” safety Chris Crocker said. “Just them getting their arms up, getting around him — it’s uncomfortable. As long as they continue to get the pressure like they’re getting, then we’ll make a lot of plays.”
Seattle (2-2) at Carolina (1-3)
Reverse the site of this game and the Seahawks are a strong favorite. Instead, they make one of the longest road trips possible in the NFL, 2,800 miles, to face an angry group of Panthers.
Carolina had Atlanta pinned at its 1-yard line in the final moments last Sunday and still managed to blow the game. For developing teams, such defeats can be devastating.
“We are a young football team, but at some point you’ve got to get past that, because at some point you run out of time,” coach Ron Rivera said. “We don’t want to run out of time.”
Chicago (3-1) at Jacksonville (1-3)
The addition of WR Brandon Marshall has energized Chicago’s offense and even made Jay Cutler less sullen. But it’s the defense that is making the Bears formidable with a league-high 14 takeaways, including 11 interceptions. They’ve run back three picks for touchdowns.
That paints a distressing picture for the Jaguars, whose 62 points are the fewest of any team to have played four games.
Tennessee (1-3) at Minnesota (3-1)
One of the league’s biggest flops through a quarter of the schedule visits one of the most pleasant surprises.
Tennessee is without starting QB Jake Locker (shoulder), so Matt Hasselbeck gets the call. He’ll need Chris Johnson to resemble the running back he was last week with 141 yards, not the impostor of the previous three games.
Minnesota has been getting strong contributions from its veteran leaders, particularly Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin on offense, Chad Greenway and Antoine Winfield on defense, and Harvin on special teams. The kick returners have been superb.
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