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Sunday Night Football Preview: Battle on the Bayou

Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees square off on Sunday Night Football. Who comes out on top?

After a 19-7 Week 3 loss to Detroit, Aaron Rodgers told Packer fans and fantasy owners alike to relax. Four victories and 145 points later, the city of Green Bay is kicking back on Easy Street. Speaking of easy, the Packers head south to the Big Easy to take on the scuffling New Orleans Saints on Sunday night.

While the Packers are streaking as winners of four straight, tied for first place in the NFC North, the Saints have struggled to find their way through a schedule made up of teams who combined to win just 33% of their games in 2013. According to our key metric Net Expected Points (NEP), which determines how many points a player or team adds or loses towards the final score, the Saints are currently 29th in overall Defensive NEP. The New Orleans defense performs – on average – 11.6 points below expectation per game. They are dead last in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play, which is our way of saying they are the worst defensive unit in football when taking schedule strength into account.

On the offensive side of things, the Saints have struggled with injuries. Running back Mark Ingram missed three games with a broken hand, and tight end Jimmy Graham is playing through a nagging shoulder. Now, the offensive unit be without the services of Pierre Thomas for up to three weeks. Drew Brees continues to be a troubling presence to fantasy owners, as he has still not passed for more than two touchdowns in any game and has already thrown seven interceptions, putting him on pace for the third-highest interception total of his career.

The environment is never comfortable for visitors in the Superdome, so this game isn’t as cut and dry as it would appear. Using our advanced metrics, here is how this contest will most likely shake out:

Inside the Box Score

Based on projected stats, this game is as close to even as possible. The Saints are a 57.24% favorite to win, the second-lowest percentage among the 15 projected winners of Week 8 games, so this could go either way. Both teams are projected for similar total yardage – New Orleans 400, Green Bay 394 – and the turnover projection has each team around 1.5 for the game. With the projections being so similar, we turn to our strongest predictors – games that have already occurred that are a statistical match to the game in question – to get more insight.

The most similar game on record favors the Saints. This contest occurred in 2000 and featured the St. Louis Rams (the Saints in the comparison) and the Minnesota Vikings (as the Packers). The defending Super Bowl Champion Rams were on their way to another playoff berth and entered this game as a small home favorite. With a game total set at 56.5, the Rams and Vikings put on an offensive display with the Rams coming out on top 40-29.

Both teams were efficient on offense, combining for zero turnovers. The difference in the game was the dynamic performance of Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk, who turned 31 touches into 178 yards and 4 touchdowns. Daunte Culpepper carried the load for the Vikings, passing for 221 yards and 3 scores along with a separate score on the ground. A game that projected to be a shoot-out was just that, and the Rams defense provided a spark with four sacks while Kurt Warner wasn’t touched by Viking defenders all day.

This contest reflects the current state of the Saints as a whole. They’re giving up 27.5 points per game, they’ve only recorded 6 sacks as a unit, and they’re being forced to score in bulk to win. For New Orleans to win this game, they will simply have to outpace the Packers offense. These two teams are each in the top three in Adjusted NEP per play on offense, so offense should not be an issue in this game.

Green Bay’s Defense Holds the Key to Victory

The Packer defense isn’t exactly beating the world this season, ranking 18th in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play. However, the Packers have been able to hold 4 opponents to 20 points or fewer this season. Because the Saints are usually a much different team at home, the Packers will need to show more balance than they usually do to win this game.

The strongest predictor for a Packers victory brings us back to a 2009 contest between the San Diego Chargers (playing the Packers in this comparison) and the Dallas Cowboys. The Chargers, who eventually finished 2009 with a 13-3 record, traveled to Dallas as a 3.5-point underdog. They trailed briefly but ultimately outlasted the Cowboys 20-17. The game fell short of the 48.5 projected total, and 2 high-powered offenses put up extremely mild numbers. Philip Rivers out-dueled Tony Romo in passing yardage 272-249 while LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates scored touchdowns. Both teams ran the ball 25 times or more, and the time of possession battle was almost a dead heat, with San Diego edging the Cowboys 30:05-29:55.

Eddie Lacy, who hasn’t had more than 17 carries in any game this season, will have to be better than his -6.71 Rushing NEP. He ranks just 15th in the metric out of the 20 running backs who have taken more than 80 carries. If the Packers want to control the clock and try to keep their questionable defense off the field against an always-lethal Saints team, Lacy will be critical.

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