After back-to-back games on the road in Atlanta and Cincinnati, the 4-1 Patriots return home to host the 5-0 Saints (4:25 p.m., FOX).
But for New England, returning home means playing in front of a stadium packed full of fans that are expecting a big improvement over what they’ve seen – at least offensively, anyways. The Pats expect better too, and with the possible return of Rob Gronkowski to the lineup on Sunday, that expectation could certainly become a reality. Here’s what you should be looking for as the Patriots look to improve to 21-1 in October since 2003.
Assuming Gronkowski plays, just how much he plays will be interesting to watch. He’ll have to earn his playing time back from fellow tight ends Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan. Kidding! But don’t expect Gronk to play every snap, either. Danny Amendola played 38-of-63 total snaps in his return last Sunday, and while the players and injuries are completely different, you can expect the Pats to take it slow on Gronk, especially if “Camp Gronk” has any say in things. Still, just having him back on the field – even as a decoy, or to block – will do wonders in opening up the passing game. But we’re predicting Gronk finds the end zone in his first game back anyways.
Thin on the D-line
The Patriots are already without Vince Wilfork for the rest of the year. Now, fellow D-lineman Tommy Kelly has missed practice all week with a knee injury suffered against the Bengals, putting his status for Sunday in jeopardy. It’s a good thing the Saints offense stinks . . . oh wait, it’s awesome. Missing those two linemen not only opens things up in the running game, but also gives Brees even more time to pick apart the Patriots secondary. The linebacking unit of Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, and Dont’a Hightower will be key in this game.
Meeting of the minds
Ask any knowledgeable NFL fan to rank their top five current NFL head coaches and all of them will have Bill Belichick and Sean Payton in there. It’s been that way for quite some time, too. There’s plenty of respect between the two as well, as they held joint practices in Foxboro two years ago. At the same time, it makes preparing a game plan that much tougher. Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich has played for both coaches, having started his career with the Saints. He noted that both coaches stress being mentally tough and smart.
“I think that both coaches really try to hit home on and get every single player in that mindset of playing three phases, taking care of the football on offense and creating turnovers on defense,” Ninkovich said.