It's received secondary status on this week's Hype-O-Meter since the Minnesota Favres are playing a very game Baltimore Ravens team, but the Match of the Unbeatens -- the 5-0 New York Giants vs. the 4-0 New Orleans Saints -- isn't short on storylines, either. There's Eli Manning's(notes) first NFL go in his home state, Jeremy Shockey's(notes) Vengeance Bowl against his old team, and the aftereffects of Brandon Jacobs'(notes) recent unhappiness with his own production and the media's response to it. Still, the most intriguing tale of this game, and quite possibly the key to deciding the winner, is the fact that when you talk defense, you now have to include the Saints in the discussion.
From 2006 through 2008, the Sean Payton-led Saints have been all about offense. Drew Brees(notes) has been putting up Madden numbers and leaving holes for a decent running game, but the defense -- specifically the pass defense -- has been a major liability. That's how you miss the playoffs when your quarterback throws for over 5,000 yards in a single season.
Two new additions seem to have changed everything. The Saints currently rank seventh in yards per pass attempt allowed at 6.0, and that has a lot to do with new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and veteran safety Darren Sharper(notes). Williams' move to a hybrid 3-4 has paid great dividends, allowing more formation diversity with linebacker Scott Shanle(notes) often lining up as an edge defender, and tackle Sedrick Ellis(notes) penetrating as never before.
In the defensive backfield, Sharper has been the ultimate ballhawk -- he leads the NFL in interceptions with 5, is tied with Oakland safety Michael Huff(notes) in pass deflections with 10, has returned two of those five picks for touchdowns, and has an astonishing 275 interception return yards. To put that last number in perspective, Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall(notes) has the second-most return yards this season -- with 84! Sharper, the former Viking and Packer, was thought to be over the hill pre-season and was turned away by more than one team. He's proven the doubters wrong, and the Saints are getting more than their money's worth on that one-year, $1.7 million contract. Now, the Saints can win games in which Brees doesn't throw a touchdown pass, which is exactly what happened when they beat the Bills and Jets after Brees' hot two-game start.
Eli Manning has a new cadre of receivers to throw to, and the new Giants have become his team, but he'd better be careful against a pass defense that is very definitely for real. This game could show up late in the playoff picture as a game with tiebreaker implications, and the Saints would love to welcome the G-Men back to the Big Easy around NFC Championship time if it goes that way.