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The New England Patriots and the New Orleans Saints remain something of a mystery to the rest of the NFL. The Saints, in particular, have been both extremely impressive and wildly disappointing. They enjoyed a wild high in Week 1 with a 38-3 win over the Green Bay Packers, only to falter in a 26-7 loss to the Carolina Panthers in Week 2.
It’s anyone’s guess which version of the Saints will arrive for Week 3 against the Patriots at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots are expecting the best version of New Orleans. If they get that version, New England will be up for a tough test, because to this point, the Patriots have faced lowly-looking Dolphins and Jets teams and have just a 1-1 record to show for it.
Here are New England’s keys to a victory over the Saints.
Make sure Jameis Winston plays like he did in Week 2
This key is genuinely easier said than done, because Winston is among the biggest boom-or-bust quarterbacks in the NFL. In any given week, he can look like one of the league's best -- or worst. The Patriots are a fairly strong man-coverage team, even without cornerback Stephon Gilmore, but it's possible we'll see the team run disguised zone coverages in an attempt to force Winston to stay patient in picking apart the zone and mentally sharp in terms of identifying any divergence from the norm. So that will mean heavy lifting from Bill Belichick, Steve Belichick and Jerod Mayo -- the group that seems to be working as defensive coordinator by committee Bottom line: New England's secondary will do what it can to confuse Winston. Surely, Belichick has a few ideas, given that there is extensive film of Winston looking befuddled. Last week is the most recent example.
Damien Harris needs to continue to carry the offense with angry runs and good ball security
With the exception of one fumble, the Patriots have a recipe for success. They let the defense generate good field position and turnovers. In turn, New England can win the time of possession battle and let Harris shine. There are two shortcomings, however, to that game plan. And we've actually witnessed both of them. That kind of conservative game plan requires practically zero mistakes. Against Miami in Week 1, the Patriots made too many mistakes, including -- and most notably -- Harris' fumble in the red zone with three minutes left in the game. The conversation game plan can also lead to a lack of efficiency. Harris averaged 3.9 yards per carry, even with a 26-yard carry. That's rough. Winston isn't likely to throw four turnovers like Zach Wilson did. In that sense, Harris needs to play even better than he did in Week 2 and definitely commit fewer mistakes than he did in Week 1. And, of course, it's not just Harris. The offensive line needs to perform at a higher level.
If the defense and Harris get it done, Mac Jones should do what he's been doing: Play boring
Jones has faced intense scrutiny in the last week. New England's media has clung to the idea that Jones isn't doing enough for the offense. He has been extremely conservative through the first two weeks, and in Week 2, he struggled against pressure -- an interesting digression after he was basically flawless against pressure in Week 1. https://twitter.com/McKennAnalysis/status/1440407755936833543 But he only threw the ball 20-plus yards beyond the line of scrimmage twice against the Jets. And they won because the Jets continually turned over the ball and the Patriots did not. As much as the media is forcing Jones to consider forcing the ball downfield, he may not need to. He should put external pressures aside and do what's necessary for a win.
If the defense and/or Harris struggle, then Mac Jones needs to do what he's done sparingly: Play aggressive
All that said, the Patriots defense will definitely have more issues with Winston than it did with Wilson. And Harris and the offensive line should also have more issues with an elite Saints defense than they did with an unimpressive Jets unit. So if the Patriots' initial game plan -- the one they've hammered in the first two weeks -- doesn't come together, then they'll have to stop avoiding Jones and put him into the spotlight. He will need to attack the defense with a greater diversity of throws, which will mean attacking the middle and deep thirds of the field. Jones also barely used the middle of the field in Week 2. There's plenty of room for him to improve and get more aggressive.
Contain Alvin Kamara -- with a linebacker group that has yet to show its capable of such a tall task
So this isn't the most optimistic start to a "key," is it? Patriots cornerback Jon Jones may compare Alvin Kamara to James White. And Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler might compare himself to Kamara. The truth is that there's only one Kamara. He's perfect for an offensive-minded coach like Sean Payton, who can truly make the most out of a versatile talent like Kamara. That's why Kamara is so hard to contain, even with a good front seven. And there is some question as to whether the Patriots actually have a good front-seven, with issues limiting the Jets group of backs. New England may have to put together some run blitzes and double teams for Kamara on Sunday.
Don't be afraid to use exotic blitzes and complicated looks in the front-seven in passing situations
We discussed using complicated coverages. That may serve the Patriots well. But it was actually the blitz packages that stumped Winston in Week 2 against the Carolina Panthers. He had issues communicating with his offensive line before the snap, and so the Panthers got easier opportunities to get to Winston with the wrong protections in place. “Our protection plan wasn’t good,” Payton said after the game. “It had nothing to do with us being short-handed.” It's likely the Saints will overprepare after acknowledging their weakness. But in hockey, you always test a goaltender that looks weak. It should be the same with the Patriots as they send pass-rushers Mathew Judon, Josh Uche, Chase Winovich and others after Winston.