Here we go again.
In the most unpredictable year imaginable, the Saints have a case of injury déjà vu involving Drew Brees.
The Saints quarterback took a vicious sack in the second quarter against the San Francisco 49ers, was able to return and orchestrate New Orleans's final drive for a touchdown but did not return to the field in the second half. Monday, it was revealed that Brees is dealing with multiple fractured ribs and a collapsed lung. Talk about grittiness.
With Brees sidelined for the final two quarters last week, the Saints turned to backup quarterback Jameis Winston and do-it-all offensive dynamo Taysom Hill to shoulder the load under center in order to clinch a 27-13 victory, the franchise's sixth in a row.
Brees has been the epitome of durability throughout his career, missing just six starts in 20 NFL seasons. Five of those missed starts occurred last season following an injury to the thumb of his throwing hand. In Brees's absence in 2019, the Saints turned to Teddy Bridgewater, who helped guide New Orleans to a 5-0 record while No. 9 recovered.
This season, Sean Payton must once again hand off the keys to his offense to a second-stringer. Winston will likely start under center in Atlanta, and hopefully until Brees returns, with Hill continuing to juggle multiple offensive responsibilities.
New Orleans is a veteran team, equipped to handle exactly this kind of adversity. We'll soon find out if Jameis is Teddy 2.0 and if the rest of the squad can rise to the occasion until their leader returns.
Speaking of hard times, LSU returns to the gridiron this weekend, as the Tigers head up to Fayetteville to take on the Arkansas Razorbacks. The Tigers haven't played since Halloween and face quarterback issues of their own with Myles Brennan likely out for the rest of the 2020 season. LSU avoided a likely beatdown from Alabama, and now we'll see if the Tigers used the past three weeks wisely in practice to improve any number of the glaring flaws plaguing this team on both sides of the ball so far this season.
Saints vs. Falcons
Where/When to Watch: Sunday, November 22 at 12:00 p.m. on FOX
All aboard the Jameis Winston Express.
The former Buccaneers quarterback completed six of his 10 passes for 63 yards last weekend in his first meaningful action for the Saints (7-2). Considering the situation, Winston accomplished the task at hand: to hold onto the lead in the second half and win the game.
Sunday's game plan against San Francisco wasn't tailored for Winston, and should he start against Atlanta (very likely), expect to see the former Heisman Trophy winner to be more productive, or so Saints fans hope.
It's ironic that Winston should get his first career start as a Saint against Atlanta because the last time Winston started in the NFL in 2019, he threw a pick-six in overtime to Falcons linebacker Devin White to give Tampa Bay their ninth loss of the year in the season finale.
Winston's 2019 season was fascinatingly unpredictable. The game-ending interception thrown by Winston against Atlanta set a new NFL single-season record (7) for most pick-sixes thrown. That interception also spawned the creation of the unsavory 30-30 Club, as Winston became the first player in NFL history to throw for at least 30 touchdowns and 30 interceptions in a season. Only two other quarterbacks threw for at least 20 interceptions last season: Baker Mayfield (21) and Philip Rivers (20).
Yet, Winston's 33 touchdown passes were second only to Baltimore's Lamar Jackson, the 2019 NFL Most Valuable Player. Winston also led the NFL in passing yards (5,109), becoming just the eighth player in NFL history to eclipse the 5,000-yard mark in a season. Brees has accomplished that feat five times, but no other quarterback has thrown for more than 5,000 yards in a season more than once.
Clearly Winston possesses impressive arm talent, but also has questionable judgement. Before last season, Winston averaged 14.5 interceptions a year, throwing for his second highest total (18) in 2016 as a second-year starter. We'll find out soon enough if Winston has learned from the mistakes of his mercurial final season in Tampa Bay.
Fortunately, Winston should have the entire arsenal of Saints offensive weapons at his disposal moving forward. Alvin Kamara scored all three of the Saints' touchdowns last week, and receivers Michael Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders are eager to return to the end zone. There are sure to be contributions from Deonte Harris, Jared Cook, Tre'Quan Smith, and whatever magic Hill can conjure from game to game. If Winston is capable under center, expect Hill to take fewer snaps as a passer, since he is now the backup quarterback until Brees returns.
After starting the season 0-5 (with some epic collapses) and firing their head coach, the Falcons (3-6) have won three of four and are starting to make the season somewhat respectable. Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan has nine touchdowns to two interceptions over the last four games. Leading rusher Todd Gurley hasn't rushed for over 63 yards since October 11 but has found the end zone four times in the last month. Star receiver tandem Calvin Ridley and Julio Jones have combined for over 1,200 yards and nine touchdowns and are capable of going off at any moment.
The Saints' run defense limited San Francisco to under 50 yards rushing last week, setting an NFL record of limiting individual rushers to under 100 yards for the 52nd consecutive game. Gurley may find the end zone on Sunday, but don't expect a big yardage game from the former Georgia Bulldog. The intriguing matchup to watch will be Atlanta's receivers versus the Saints secondary, as the Falcons' passing offense ranks second in the NFL. Malcolm Jenkins and Patrick Robinson both picked off Nick Mullens, while defensive back C.J. Gardner-Johnson had a monster game against San Francisco, wreaking havoc in the backfield on key downs throughout the game. Linebacker Demario Davis blistered the 49ers with 12 tackles, three tackles for loss, two quarterback hits, and a sack. If Davis and Johnson keep up the intensity and production, watch out.
On defense, Atlanta ranks 29th in the NFL, giving up 410 yards a game. In the last four games, the Falcons have allowed 22.5 points per game, but they haven't played the stiffest competition recently. In the first four games of the season, the Falcons allowed 34.5 points per game, with losses to Seattle, Dallas, Chicago, and Green Bay. Atlanta's defensive strength is their run defense, which ranks sixth and surrenders under 100 yards per game. With Brees under center, the New Orleans offense would've been fine against this incarnation of the Dirty Birds, but Winston still needs to prove himself.
The Falcons are an interesting team to evaluate after such a putrid start. A new coach combined with fresh energy and some inferior opponents have aided Atlanta's "resurgence" the past month. Atlanta has shown resiliency after a demoralizing start to the season, but this is a game New Orleans needs to win to keep the hope of a top playoff seed alive.
The Saints have faced this exact situation before and have more than enough talent on both sides of the ball to keep winning in Brees's absence. Plus, it doesn't hurt that their next four opponents on the schedule have lackluster records.
It's time for Winston to step into the spotlight, exorcise the demons of 2019, and prove that he can still lead an NFL franchise. Do that, and he'll be eating Ws once again.
Prediction: Saints 24, Falcons 17
LSU at Arkansas
Where/When to Watch: Saturday, November 21, at 11:00 a.m. on SEC Network
It's been a while.
The last time we saw LSU, the Tigers (2-3) were getting routed 48-11 by Auburn on Halloween. After a bye week and the postponement (or maybe cancellation) of their matchup with Alabama, LSU heads up to Arkansas (3-4) in the annual Battle for the Golden Boot.
The Razorbacks are not a good team, but the turnaround in coach Sam Pittman's first year in Fayetteville so far has been impressive. Arkansas's three SEC wins are more than the previous three seasons combined, and they were robbed of a fourth win in Auburn because of a late missed call.
Last week, Arkansas was gashed by Florida's offense, surrendering 593 yards in a 63-35 beatdown in Gainesville. The Hogs lead the SEC with 13 interceptions but couldn't pick one from Florida quarterback Kyle Trask, who threw for six touchdowns last week. Florida, however, is one of the best teams in the nation and has a chance to make the College Football Playoff. Still, Arkansas's defense ranks 10th in the SEC, and they give up over 425 yards per game, including nearly 185 yards on the ground—the third worst in the conference.
Unfortunately, LSU has beaten only one team not named Vanderbilt all season, and South Carolina just fired their head coach. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out LSU's offensive woes: Myles Brennan is hurt, the offensive line is subpar, the running game is non-existent, and the freshman backup quarterback looked like a deer in the headlights at Auburn. But finding solutions to those problems has been a tough task for the Tigers so far this season.
Arkansas's senior quarterback Feleipe Franks has proven to be above average since transferring from Florida. Franks has thrown for 1,678 yards, 16 touchdowns, and three interceptions this season, but he's also been sacked 21 times. The Tigers have sacked opposing quarterbacks 14 times, and freshman linebacker BJ Ojulari ranks second in the SEC with four sacks. Fortunately for Franks, LSU ranks dead last in the SEC in pass defense, surrendering over 335 yards per game. Woof.
Franks's go-to playmaker is sophomore receiver Treylon Burks, who's put together a good year, with 34 receptions, 508 yards, and five touchdowns. On the ground last week, the Razorbacks were able to rush for 208 yards and three touchdowns. Running backs Trelon Smith and Rakeem Boyd led the way, with 118 and 56 yards and a touchdown each. LSU's rush defense, however, has been one of the few strengths of the team this year, and they've got the ability to wreak havoc in the backfield.
Under coach Ed Orgeron, the Tigers are 12-0 following a loss. If the Tigers can get their act together, they have a real chance of reaching .500 on Saturday, but how much has LSU improved these past three weeks? LSU has the talent to beat Arkansas, but the Razorbacks might have the edge when it comes to grit and heart.
It's time to reveal the true character of this 2020 LSU squad. Will the Tigers fold in the face of adversity, or do they have enough fight remaining to finish the season strong?
Prediction: LSU 31, Arkansas 24
Andrew Alexander is a contributing writer, football fan, and unofficial president of the Arch Manning Fan Club. Follow him on Twitter at @TheOtherAA and listen to the Krewe du Drew podcast.