The NFL’s opening slate of games is filled with intriguing and eye-catching matchups, from the opening game (Pittsburgh at New England) to the battle of rookie QBs (Tennessee at Tampa Bay). But Sunday’s late afternoon affair between the New Orleans Saints and the Arizona Cardinals will provide some early answers in who could emerge from the NFC pack to challenge the upper-tier Seahawks and Packers.
After the Saints finished last season at 7-9, a half-game out of first place in the dreadful NFC South, changes had to be made, not only to improve the team but to circumvent the salary cap. Gone is All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham, guard Ben Grubbs, and wide receiver Kenny Stills. It’s unclear how this scaled-back offense will look this season, but Drew Brees was sharp in limited preseason action, completing 12 of 16 passes for 199 yards and two TDs.
The Saints defense was second-worst in the league last season in total yards. The acquisition of Brandon Browner should help improve the secondary (which would be even better if Jairus Byrd could stay healthy), but this D has a long way to go to get to the level of the Cardinals.
The Cards’ defense embodied the philosophy of “bend, don’t break” last season, ranking 24th in the league in yards allowed, but top-five in points against. The team finished 11-5 in 2014, despite having three different quarterbacks start games.
For Week 1 (at least), Arizona will have Carson Palmer under center. Since arriving in the desert, the Cards are 17-5 when Palmer starts, and 5-6 when he doesn’t. Coming off knee surgery this offseason, Palmer will need Arizona’s offensive line to be better than they have this preseason if he’s going to last the year.
Theses two teams last met in Week 3 of 2013 with New Orleans taking a 31-7 win at home. The Saints have also taken three of the last four meetings, including the 2010 Divisional matchup that ended up being the last game of Kurt Warner’s career. In all three of those victories, New Orleans scored at least 31 points.
Arizona has been near-dominant at home of late, though, going 13-3 over the past two seasons; over that stretch, New Orleans is a pedestrian 7-9 on the road.
Since arriving in New Orleans in 2006, Brees is just 1-3 when opening the season on the road. Arizona has won their last five home openers, but each game was decided by seven points or fewer.
Straight-up pick: Arizona.
(Photo Credit: Brook Ward (Originally uploaded to Flickr)[https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/].)