KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
TV: FOX, Ron Pitts, Tim Ryan
SERIES: 11th meeting. The Patriots lead the series 7-3, winning the first five encounters and the last two after the Saints won three straight in the 1980s and 1990s. In their most recent meeting, the Patriots took a 34-17 win in 2001.
2005 RANKINGS: Saints: offense 20th (12th rush, 22nd pass); defense 12th (30th rush, 5th pass). Patriots: offense 6th (29th rush, 2nd pass); defense 31st (23rd rush, 31st pass)
PREDICTION: Patriots 34-27
KEYS TO THE GAME: Both teams have been poor at stopping the run. While the Patriots aren't sure who will be healthy enough to carry the load in their backfield, the Saints will use a combination of RBs Antowain Smith, Aaron Stecker and newly-signed Anthony Thomas. If New Orleans can find early balance on offense, New England could be in trouble because its secondary will be outmanned against Saints WRs Joe Horn and Dante Stallworth. With his own running game unreliable, Patriots QB Tom Brady will again have to shoulder the load. The Saints are allowing just 167.8 passing yards per game, but that mostly because opponents have been able to run at will.
FAST FACTS: Saints: QB Aaron Brooks has a completion of at least 25 yards in an NFL-high 29 consecutive games. ... Are 8-8 in games immediately following a bye, including 3-2 under coach Jim Haslett. ... Are 2-7 for the ninth time in 39 seasons. Patriots: Have allowed a combined 81 points in two home losses this season. ... Are 17-4 in past 21 games against NFC teams.
GAME PLAN: Even without two-time Pro Bowl running back Deuce McAllister, the Saints will try to run the ball against the Patriots on Sunday - because almost everyone else has. The Patriots are allowing 123.1 yards a game on the ground and rank 23rd in the league, so the Saints will try to pound them with Antowain Smith and maybe recently acquired running back Anthony Thomas. The Saints rank 12th in rushing offense with 122.4 yards per game despite McAllister's absence.
INJURY IMPACT: Once again, the Saints will be short at tight end as starter Ernie Conwell is expected to miss Sunday's game because of a sprained posterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. In the team's last game on Nov. 6, third-year pro Zach Hilton started because Conwell and Shad Meier, who had a hip injury, were out. Meier is expected to be available Sunday, but Hilton should still start with Meier and veteran Lamont Hall in reserve. Meier's return would help because the Saints had to use guard Jamar Nesbit as an extra tight end in their last game with the Chicago Bears.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
--Saints secondary vs. Patriots QB Tom Brady. The Saints rank fifth in the league in pass defense, allowing just 196.4 yards a game, but Brady might have to go to the air early and often anyway if they continue to struggle running the ball with Corey Dillon nursing a calf injury.--Saints RDT Brian Young and RDE Darren Howard vs. Patriots LG Logan Mankins and LT Nick Kaczur. Mankins and Kaczur are rookies, so the Saints will go into the game looking to turn up the heat on Brady when he drops back to pass.
--Saints WR Donte Stallworth vs. Patriots RCB Ellis Hobbs. The speedy Stallworth is the Saints' top receiver this season, so don't be surprised if Aaron Brooks doesn't look to take some shots when their rangy 215-pound receiver matches up with the Patriots' 5-foot-9, 188-pound rookie.
GAME PLAN: The Patriots don't want to repeat the script from last week when the offense flopped around for almost three full quarters before hitting its stride and the defense allowed tons of yardage but averted disaster by making some big plays. The Patriots ideally would like to strike early since the Saints have been outscored 72-37 in the first quarter this season. They also would like to apply steady pressure on QB Aaron Brooks, who has been sacked 26 times, third-most in the league.
INJURY IMPACT: C Dan Koppen's loss will take some getting used to since he hadn't missed a game since being promoted to the starting lineup two weeks into his rookie season of 2003. The Patriots have to hope that losing Koppen, who rarely made mistakes with his line calls, isn't as damaging a blow as losing strong safety Rodney Harrison, who made the calls in the defensive backfield. The Patriots still haven't recovered from Harrison's injury. However, the secondary now is as healthy as it has been all season with only rookie safety James Sanders (ankle/questionable) appearing on the injury report.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
--Patriots FS Eugene Wilson vs. Saints WRs Donte' Stallworth and Joe Horn - Wilson needs to do a better job of getting the ever-changing secondary on the same page. There were major breakdowns in coverage again last week against the Dolphins. Despite QB Aaron Brooks' poor numbers (7 TDs, 12 interceptions), a repeat effort by the defensive backs this week could prove costly against the Saints' talented wideouts.
--Patriots NT Vince Wilfork vs. Saints C LeCharles Bentley - Wilfork had struggled over the first half of the season, but he showed great improvement last week against Miami as the Patriots shut down a solid Dolphins running game. Wilfork will need to clog the middle again this week because the Saints rank 12th in rushing offense.
--TE Ernie Conwell will likely be sidelined for Sunday's game because of a torn posterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. He is listed as questionable, but is shooting for a return next week against the New York Jets.
--MLB Courtney Watson remains questionable with a sprained medial collateral ligament in his knee, and probably will not play Sunday against the New England Patriots.
--WR Donte Stallworth was limited in practice with a shoulder problem and is questionable for Sunday's game.
--SS Dwight Smith, who has a calf injury, has practiced this week but remains questionable for Sunday's game with the Patriots.
--LS Kevin Houser has an eye infection and is listed as questionable, but he should be ready for Sunday's game.
--WLB T.J. Slaughter has missed the last five games with a pulled abdominal muscle and is listed as questionable for the Patriots.
--WR Nate Poole, who tore the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments and the patellar tendon in his right knee, was placed on injured reserve Wednesday.
--WR Lance Moore was signed from the Saints' practice squad to take Nate Poole's spot on the 53-man active roster.
--RB Corey Dillon (calf) missed his second straight day of practice Thursday. He is listed as questionable on the injury report.
--FB Patrick Pass seems to be recovered from the hamstring injury that forced him to miss the last two games. Pass practiced Wednesday and Thursday, although he is still listed as questionable.
--WR David Givens, No. 2 on the team in catches (42) and receiving yards (477), missed his second straight day of practice Thursday with a knee injury that kept him out of last week's game. He is listed as questionable.
--WR Troy Brown (foot) missed his second straight day of practice Thursday. Brown, who sat out two games earlier this season with a foot injury, is listed as questionable.
--CB Artrell Hawkins, who signed on Tuesday, could see action this week, especially if WR Troy Brown is forced to sit out. Brown played both ways last week for the first time this season. He was a cornerback in sub packages against Miami.
--LB Monty Beisel (back) missed his second straight day of practice Thursday. He is listed as questionable.
--LT Matt Light, who has missed six straight games, said his injured right leg/ankle is "coming along great." Light was upgraded from out to doubtful on the injury report this week, although he has not returned to practice.
--RT Brandon Gorin could make his second straight start this week in place of injured Tom Ashworth (knee). Ashworth missed last week's game and has not practiced this week.