The New Orleans Saints will travel to Landover, MD looking to expand their current 11-0 winning streak and claim outright the NFC South, which would make Sean Payton the first Saints head coach to win two division titles and preserve the Black and Gold’s slender lead over the Minnesota Vikings for homefield advantage in the playoffs.
But there is far more at stake for the Crescent City’s most popular assistant coach.
While many Saints fans had either the Patriots or Cowboys game circled on the season schedule since the 2009 match-ups were released by the NFL this past spring, Gregg Williams had a much different game circled early on his calendar.
Williams became a defensive coordinator scorned in 2008 when he was not only denied an expected promotion to head coach for the Washington Redskins after Joe Gibbs’s retirement but was sacked from his job running their defense.
Two seasons removed from Dan Snyder’s snub, the Redskins are at the bottom of the NFC East while Williams’s new team has achieved unparalleled success in franchise history in no small part through his efforts.
To paraphrase the Grail guardian from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the Redskins’ owner chose poorly and Williams doubtlessly is looking make the 2009 season a little bit more painful for Snyder and his employees.
One has to wonder which group of players will be the most anxious this weekend: Washington’s defensive players who remember their old tough coach; a Washington offense that’s cognizant how bad Williams wants to make a statement at their expense on Sunday; or the Saints defense that doesn’t want to disappoint their coordinator.
Gregg Williams is coming to FedEx Field seeking “justice” and Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell may suffer greatly for his boss’ sins.
Though they are in the basement of their division, the Redskins record can be misleading, at least when evaluating the team purely on their 3-8 record. The Redskins beat the Denver Broncos by 10 in week ten and had the offense been capable of scoring another touchdown in five of their losses, they’d be leading their division.
True their offense is about as potent as a 90 year old man in a cathouse sans his blue pills, as they rank 29th in points per game with a paltry average of 15.5- the kind of score the Saints offense can put up in the fourth quarter alone. The offense is as equally unremarkable on the ground (102.2 yards per game, 21st in the NFL) as they are in the air (206.8 yards per game, 20th in the league).
To further complicate matters, the team’s leading running back, Clinton Portis, will not play against the Saints. Tight end Chris Cooley, third in reception yards, has been placed on Injured Reserve. With their lackluster offense hobbled with injuries, it’s no wonder that their offense could only produce two field goals against the Cowboys.
However the Redskins defensive squad is another story, for while the Redskins offense only generated six points in the aforementioned game, their defense only allowed a single Cowboy score, a touchdown that allowed their rival to win by one point.
To put it simply, the Redskins have a defense that keeps them in almost all of their games no matter how poor their offense performs.
The Redskins have the league’s second-best pass defense though they are relatively more vulnerable against the run, allowing 127.9 yards on the ground per game, 25th in the league. That said, the Redskins defense, talented as it is, has produced few turnovers. The Redskins have 7 interceptions (none returned for touchdowns) and have recovered only six fumbles (also without scores). The Redskins defense has only one more quarterback sack than the Saints’ defense.
Campbell has been sacked 30 times compared to Brees’s 14.
Can the Saints top-ranked offense overcome the Redskins’ 7th ranked defense? Judging how the Saints decimated two top five defenses earlier in the season (the New York Giants and Jets) it appears the unstoppable force has had luck with immovable objects.
The Oddsmaker’s Take
Danny Sheridan has the Saints as a 9.5 favorite. When considering the Saints’ 21-point stomping of the New England Patriots, that line seems a little small. First the Saints will be playing in cold FedEx Field, an unkind playing environment especially for a visiting dome team. Second, the Saints have had fits with the Redskins under the Payton era, losing to them twice, most infamously a 10-16 loss after the Black and Gold had drubbed the Cowboys 42-17 the Sunday before.
The return of defensive tackle Sedrick Elli and the Redskins’ lack of a real ground threat should make life easier for a Saints defense that has given up big plays.
For the Saints, wide receiver Lance Moore and cornerback Tracy Porter and the Saints’ injury list is rife with familiar names in this short week, though limited practice participation may not be an omen of sitting out the game. The good news is that running back Reggie Bush and cornerback Jabari Greer might return against the Redskins.
The injury riddled home team will be without the services of its top rusher, pro-bowl tight end and cornerback DeAngelo Hall thought defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth should take the field after a two game sit out due to a sprained ankle.
While many people are expecting the Saints to easily add another notch on their winning streak this Sunday, the Redskins have proven to be a resilient team, losing three games by three points or less.
If I had to lay down money, I would expect the Saints to win outright though the Redskins will keep the margin within 9. As absurdly cautious as that might sound, I am still trying to exorcise memories of a Saints-Rams game that went down to the final pass.
The keys far the Saints are to score 24 points and limit turnovers. That should be enough to send Snyder off to a Johnny Rocket’s for some comfort food and for the Saints to lock up the NFC South.
If the New Orleans Saints lose a game in this regular season, then it’s likely to happen over the next three games starting with the road trip to Landover.
The OTHER Game of Note
I have two schedules posted on my bulletin board: the Saints’ and that of the Minnesota Vikings. The Saints simplified potential homefield advantage scenarios when they defeated the Patriots on Monday night as the Black and Gold needs to have a better record than the Vikings. As any Saints loss from here to the end of the season would be against an NFC team and as Minnesota’s lone loss is against an AFC team, the Vikings have the tie-breaker via conference record.
New Orleans may very well have to go unbeaten in order to secure home field advantage in the playoffs the way the Vikings have been playing.
Minnesota travel to the Arizona Cardinals this weekend though the redbirds may be without starting quarterback Kurt Warner. Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt is not tipping his hand whether he will start Warner or back-up Matt Leinart on Sunday night. Warner suffered a concussion against Saint Louis two weeks ago and sat out last weeks loss to the Tennessee Titans.
As the Cardinals have some cushion over the San Francisco Forty-Niners in the NFC West, Whisenhunt might not be inclined to play his banged up quarterback against the league leader in sacks.
The Vikings close out the season against the Cincinnati Bengals, Carolina Panthers, Chicago Bears (at Soldier Field) and New York Giants, with the Bengals being their toughest opponents.