New Orleans Saints at San Diego Chargers (-4, 53.5 o/u)
Points, points, points, points, points, points! That’s what you can expect this Sunday (4:25 PM Eastern) when the New Orleans Saints (0-3 SU and 1-2 ATS) travel to So-Cal to face the San Diego Chargers (1-2 SU and 1-2 ATS) at Qualcomm Stadium.
As was expected coming into the year, both of these teams have top-ten offenses and brutal defenses. The Saints are eighth in the league, averaging 26.3 PPG, but their swiss-cheese D is giving up 32 per contest (second-worst). The Chargers numbers are a little better; they’re third in the NFL at 29.0 PPG, while giving up 24.3 (19th).
San Diego hasn’t been able to turn those stats into a winning record. They blew out Jacksonville in Week 2 (38-14) but that was sandwiched between two narrow setbacks (33-27 at Kansas City; 26-22 at Indianapolis).
Just like last year, injuries have hit the team hard. Philip Rivers, or more accurately his internal organs, will be thankful that the offensive line is still relatively healthy. Losing top target Keenan Allen for the year and all-purpose back Danny Woodhead for the foreseeable future will have Rivers’ right arm in full mourning, though.
The Chargers are now having to rely on second-year running back Melvin Gordon (54 car, 194 yards, four touchdowns) and a couple unheralded receivers in Travis Benjamin (17 rec, 229 yards, two touchdowns) and Tyrell Williams (11 rec, 201 yards, one touchdown).
Rivers and the O-line have done a tremendous job of getting production from the shorthanded unit so far. Indeed, when Rivers has targeted Benjamin, he has a passer rating of 147.7 — the highest mark for any QB/receiver tandem this season.
San Diego might not be able to sustain its current pace all season, but should see at least one more week of gaudy numbers. New Orleans hasn’t been able to slow anyone this season. On paper, their 16-13 setback to the Giants in Week 2 looks good, from a defensive perspective. In reality, they still surrendered a lot of yards (416 total yards; 329 passing yards) and benefited from takeaways and a ton of Giant miscues.
Normalcy returned last week when they gave up 45 points to the Falcons (45-32).
Sitting at 0-3, the team can ill-afford another loss if it’s going to retain any hope of making the playoffs. Since, 1990, only one team (the 1992 Chargers) has reached the playoffs after starting 0-4. However, 14-percent of 1-3 teams have been able to reach the post-season, including both the Chiefs and Texans last year.
If the Saints are going to turn things around, it’s going to be on the strength of the offense. Drew Brees (1062 yards, eight touchdowns, one interception) is still a top-tier QB and he’s found some chemistry with his young troupe of wide receivers.
Brandin Cooks (15 receptions, 224 yards, two touchdowns), Willie Snead (14 rec, 226 yards, two touchdowns), and Michael Thomas (17 receptions, 185 yards, one touchdown) have all been reliable in the early going, giving Brees his best stable of targets in the last few years. (Snead was limited in practice this week, but was personally confident that he’ll suit up on Sunday.)
Of course, the time that Brees is being given in the pocket is a big part of the early proficiency. Center Max Unger, acquired in a trade from Jimmy Graham last year, has been particularly good. According to PFF, he hasn’t allowed a QB pressure in 161 straight attempts, the best streak in the league. And keeping Brees clean is paramount. He has a passer rating of 113.9 without pressure, and just 62.7 with pressure (also per PFF).
I expect the Chargers to be able to move the ball almost at will, even without Allen and Woodhead. The Saints struggle in all facets on defense; Rivers is playing at an extremely high-level; and Melvin Gordon looks like a legit starter in this league (after a dreadful rookie season). But the Chargers don’t have any real home-field advantage (3-7 ATS in their last ten as a home favorite), and their defense is barely better than the Saints’.
San Diego has been able to generate some pressure this year (22 hurries, third in the league), but have yet to face an O-line this good, and they’re still without first-round draft pick Joey Bosa. I see Brees having time to work in the pocket, allowing him to pick apart the Charger secondary and keep this one close.
Pick: Saints +4.
Photo credit: FF Swami [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/], via wikimedia commons.