By Barry Hirstius – Contributing Writer
The New Orleans Saints will be seeking to bounce back from their 2018 NFL Regular Season Opening loss at home last week, when they host the Cleveland Browns this coming Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Kickoff is slated for 12 noon Central time, and the game will be televised regionally by FOX.
Coming into this game, the (0-1) Saints are a 7 and a half point favorite to defeat the (0-0-1) Browns; who opened their season last week at home by finishing in a 21-21 tie with their AFC North Division rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
But despite being such a heavy favorite, the Saints must not take Cleveland lightly given the circumstances that are coming into the game for New Orleans.
Another unexpected early season loss would be devastating to the Saints’ Playoff hopes at the end of this year, as an (0-2) start would put them in a deep “hole” that they likely would have a tough time overcoming given their brutally-tough schedule that remains in the weeks and months ahead.
With that in mind, here are Big Easy Magazine’s 5 “bold’ predictions, for this Sunday’s contest.
And we’ll start at #5, and work our way down to #1 — beginning with this one………….
#5. THE YOUNG SAINTS OFFENSIVE “SUPERSTARS” (RUNNING BACK ALVIN KAMARA AND WIDE RECIVER MICHAEL THOMAS) BOTH HAVE ANOTHER STUPENDOUS DAY ON THE STAT SHEET
In their opening 48-4o loss at home to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week, the Saints offense had a stellar performance overall, and it was the play of 2nd year RB Akvin Kamara and 3rd year WR Michael Thomas that clearly stood out.
Kamara played 52 of 64 snaps (81.3 percent) on offense against Tampa Bay, and with the Saints unexpectedly playing from behind most of the afternoon, Kamara had more catches (9) than carries (8) en route to 141 scrimmage yards, 3 touchdowns and a 2-point conversion.
Thomas meanwhile had an absolutely HUGE performance, catching a Saints franchise record 16 passes in a single game for 180 yards while scoring one TD, and actually scored what would have been a 75 yard touchdown but officials took that score off the board after they ruled that Thomas was down by contact.
In this Sunday’s contest, the Saints’ two skill player sensations will face a Browns defense (more on them coming up) that last week allowed both Steelers WR’s Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster torch them for a combined 212 yards. Kamara will rush for 74 yards on 13 carries with a score on the ground, while adding 6 receptions for another 78 yards via the air. Thomas will also have another stand-out performance, with 11 receptions for 142 yards and a TD.
#4. IN ANOTHER STORIED MEETING OF FRIENDS TURNED ARCH-ENEMIES, SAINTS HEAD COACH SEAN PAYTON AND BROWNS HEAD DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR GREGG WILLIAMS RENEW THEIR RIVALRY
Saints fans are likely aware that former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, the man behind the “Bountygate” scandal that the Saints were punished by the League for back in 2012, is now in his 2nd year as the Browns defensive coordinator.
It goes without saying that there isn’t any love that remains between Williams and Saints head coach Sean Payton; who as fans might remember had the Saints offense drop nearly 50 points on Williams 2 years ago, when he was still the defensive coordinator for the Los Angeles Rams.
The Saints were already up 21 points and that game was all but over, but it was an obvious case of running up the score by Payton. The Saints offense on that day put up 555 yards of total offense, tied for the most yards given up by a Gregg Williams defense in a non-overtime game, per The New Orleans Times-Picayune.
In this Sunday’s contest, expect the Browns and Williams to throw “everything but the kitchen sink” at the Saints offense, as they try to disrupt the Saints’ timing and precision of Payton’s offensive scheme, with his typical dose of various blitz packages that he’s used at every coaching stop that he’s ever made.
Conversely, you can expect that the Saints WILL try to put up a ton of points on the scoreboard once again (although 40 points still wasn’t good enough to win last week), as these former friends turned bitter enemies, renew old acquaintances.
#3. DREW BREES HAS ANOTHER SOLID DAY GUIDING THE SAINTS OFFENSE
In their disappointing loss to the Bucs last week, Saints QB Drew Brees had a fabulous performance, as he completed 37 of 45 passes (82.2 completion percentage), for 439 yards and 3 touchdowns. He also threw a two-point conversion pass.
It was a shame however that his efforts went to waste, as the New Orleans lost a game for the first time in the franchise’s entire 52-year history when scoring 40 points or more.
In this coming Sunday’s NFL Week #2 game at the Superdome, Brees will look to find success against a Browns defense that’s improved over the last year under Gregg Williams, but still is experiencing some “growing pains”. Nevertheless as mentioned in the prediction previous to this one: fully expect the Browns to blitz Brees early and often in this contest.
However, a defense that blitzes that much “lives by the sword but dies by the sword” as well; and the Saints future Hall of Famer will have another solid day on the stat sheet, completing 27 out of 33 passes for 346 yards and 2 TD’s.
#2. THE SAINTS DEFENSE GETS OFF TO ANOTHER “SLOW START” — BUT COMES UP BIG WITH A STELLAR 2ND HALF PERFORMANCE
It goes without saying that many ‘Who Dats’ were left in a complete state of shock last week after watching Bucs journeyman and 14th-year veteran QB Ryan Fitzpatrick TORCH the Saints’ defense as Tampa Bay rolled up 530 yards of total offense in a complete ass-whipping of monumental proportions.
Tampa Bay’s 14.9 yards per pass attempt was the 4th best single game mark in NFL history for a team that attempted 28 or more passes, per Pro Football Reference’s play index. It was the best mark put up by an NFL QB in nearly half a century (46 years ago, by Jets QB Joe Namath back in 1972).
And as a result: the Saints were left with an embarrassing loss that was not only just their 5th consecutive loss in a row in Season Opening games, but now has many observers questioning whether New Orleans is actually a legitimate Super Bowl contender or a fraud — thanks to a defense that’s continually been done in by “slow starts” in seemingly every single game they play in recent seasons.
True to form, the Saints defense will get off to another “slow start”, as the Saints enter the locker room at halftime trailing bu a score of 17-14 after yielding two more TD’s via the air to Browns starting QB Tyrod Taylor. This is the same Taylor who struggled mightily last week against the Steelers with a 15-for-40 for 197 yards stat line and a QB rating of 51.8; but gets his “groove” back against the struggling Saints secondary thanks to TD passes to WR Jarvis Landry and TE David Njoku.
But a FIERY speech by Payton to the team at halftime breathes new life and passion into the lethargic unit; and with a dominating 2nd half performance, they completely shut down Taylor and the Browns offense, with 3 sacks, 2 interceptions and a sack-strip-fumble return TD for good measure.
#1. THE GAME IS TIED AT 24-24 EARLY IN THE 4TH QUARTER, WHEN SUDDENLY……
When suddenly the Saints pass rush comes roaring to life, and Browns QB Tyrod Taylor is DRILLED by Saints DT David Onyemata, who has one of his best performances of his young career. Taylor is unable to remain in the game after the brutal but legal hit from Onyemata, and is replaced by guess who?
You got it: Browns back-up rookie QB Baker Mayfield.
On his very first passing attempt. Mayfield is hit by Saints rookie Marcus Davenport from his “blind side” for the sack and coughs up the football — which is then scooped up by Onyemata, who rambles in the rest of the way for a 31-yard fumble return for a TD.
The Browns get the ball back and Mayfield gets them past mid-field but for once, the Saints defense STOPS the Browns short on a critical 3rd Down play and forces a punt. Pinned deep back near their own goal line, Browns defensive coordinator Gregg Williams orders the Browns defense to blitz Brees yet again, but the crafty veteran burns them with a huge 42-yard completion to veteran WR Ted Ginn, Jr.
The Saints add a field goal, and then the Browns’ subsequent effort to mount a late 4th quarter comeback is thwarted when Mayfield’s pass intended for Jarvis Landry is INTERCEPTED by Saints CB Marshon Lattimore, to seal a critically-important win for New Orleans…..
FINAL SCORE: SAINTS 34, BROWNS 24
Editor’s Note: If you enjoy Barry’s writing, be sure to check out his detailed story on the how the Saints and their fans are tackling the controversial NFL-National Anthem issue, featuring his interview with Saints linebacker Demario Davis! Don’t forget to also check out our series on things to do in New Orleans as well as a piece we released today on a controversial movie filmed in New Orleans!