Chargers In Big Easy To Tackle Winless Saints

By: Bruce Marshall | Thursday, October 4, 2012

Only once has a pro football team started a season with four straight losses and still made the playoffs.

The New Orleans Saints won’t have to go far on Sunday for advice on how they might eventually become the second team to do so in NFL annals.

Whatever the historical implications, the here and now of the 2012 NFL seasons suggests the Saints (0-4) are in big trouble.  And unless they begin to turn things around, and soon, preferably on Sunday night at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome against the visiting San Diego Chargers (3-1), New Orleans can begin to plan for 2013 before Columbus Day.

A check of the Don Best NFL odds screen notes that Las Vegas oddsmakers and the wagering public are thinking the Saints can record that all-elusive first win this week, as New Orleans is posted as a 3½-point favorite, with the total mostly at 54 shaded to the ‘under’ at Nevada wagering establishments.

Kickoff on Sunday night will be at 8:30 p.m. (ET), with NBC and its Sunday night crew of Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth and Michele Tafoya on hand to describe the action.

The 0-4 link the Saints are hoping to replicate involves the Chargers and their 1992 edition, their first under head coach Bobby Ross, that also started the season 0-4 but roared to 11 wins in its next 12 games behind QB Stan Humphries and RB Marion Butts to win the AFC West and advance to the postseason. That remains the only instance of a team beginning a season 0-4 and still making the playoffs.

So, for the Saints, at least they know a team has started 0-4 in the past and still made it to the postseason, although even that remote example is moot unless New Orleans begins to play better, and fast.

The Saints’ distractions have been well-documented, beginning with their “Bounty-Gate” scandal in the offseason that resulted in numerous suspensions (some of those since rescinded to the players) including head coach Sean Payton, who is sidelined for the entire season, plus assistant Joe Vitt (who was the head coach in the preseason) and GM Mickey Loomis for the first eight weeks of the campaign.  Vitt is scheduled to return as the interim head coach in the second half of the season.

In the meantime, OL coach Aaron Kromer is the acting head coach, but the absence of Payton cannot be minimized.  Sources around the league have long marveled at Payton’s game-planning and play-calling skills.  Moreover, without Payton, there has been no leader to “step on the throats of the players” (as one source pout it) when things began to go sideways.

The Saints’ 0-4 mark is even more alarming when consider they’ve been though a rather easy part of the schedule.  Facing Washington, Carolina and Kansas City out of the chute seemed a gift, but New Orleans lost them all.  No embarrassment in last week’s 28-27 loss at Green Bay, arguably the Saints’ best performance (and first spread cover) of the season, but at this point even a 2-2 record would be considered a disappointment.  The 0-4 mark is completely off the radar.

Problems have magnified defensively, where New Orleans has allowed 27 points or more in each game and has ranked near the bottom in league stats.   The adjustment phase to new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and his various new schemes has been awkward.  Among other problems, Spagnuolo has not been able to upgrade a pass rush that was a major point of emphasis in the offseason.  New Orleans has only six sacks through the first four games.

Last week, against a Green Bay OL that had allowed eight sacks the previous week at Seattle, the Saints were rarely able to get a hand on Packer QB Aaron Rodgers.

Even QB Drew Brees (a former Charger) has had his problems, although the Saints finally began to look a bit more like themselves when gaining 446 yards last week at Green Bay, with Brees completing passes to 10 different receivers.  Brees can also break Johnny Unitas’ consecutive-game TD pass mark of 47 on Sunday night.

Still, Brees (only 57% completions) is running a bit behind his stat paces from recent seasons, and is not getting much help from the rushing game, which is barely gaining 80 yards per game.

Meanwhile, Norv Turner’s visiting Chargers have taken advantage of a favorable early-season slate with wins and covers vs. the Raiders, Titans and Chiefs, although they were hammered 27-3 in their toughest test vs. the Falcons.  Still, at 3-1, San Diego has broken quicker from the gate than it usually does under the low-key Turner, whose previous five Bolt editions started this well only once.

The offense has been able to overcome early injury problems in the RB and WR ranks, with journeyman RB Jackie Battle, in particular, picking up the infantry slack from Ryan Mathews, who only recently returned to active duty.  Philip Rivers, however, has posted only modest stats thus far (among them six TD passes in four games), and it’s doubtful the Bolts will be the beneficiary of six giveaways as the Chiefs gifted them last week.

The Chargers are hoping the return to active duty of LT Jared Gaither will solidify the back-side protection from Rivers and allow the former Pro Bowl QB an extra tick in the pocket, hopefully to better stretch the field.

Defensively, though San Diego’s front has been physical and active in the early going (allowing only 80 ypg rushing), its secondary continues to have weak links, and how well it can deal with Brees’ ability to spread the field and locate his second, third and even fourth receiving options will eb a key to developments on Sunday night.

As mentioned, these teams have had opposite spread results (Saints 1-3, Chargers 3-1) through the first four weeks of the 2012  campaign.  New Orleans is also 0-2 at home after winning and covering all nine as a host (including the playoff win over the Lions) a year ago, while San Diego has already won and covered at Oakland and Kansas City in two road games this season.

There are also some revealing totals trends both ways, with the Saints ‘over’ 3-1 this season and 19-11 in their last 30 games overall since midway in the 2010 season, while Norv’s Chargers are ‘over’ 10-2 in their last 12 games on the road.

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