(Sports Network) - Back in Week 3, the Saints endured a dose of hard luck, as a missed 29-yard field goal by kicker Garrett Hartley opened the door to an overtime loss to the Atlanta Falcons.
The Saints have been surrounded by nothing but good fortune since. As it heads to University of Phoenix Stadium to face the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, Sean Payton's club will be taking on a second straight rookie quarterback.
One week after getting a Carolina Panthers team led by rookie Jimmy Clausen, it will be undrafted former BYU star Max Hall who will get the nod behind center for Arizona this time around.
Hall, the 25-year-old Mesa, AZ native, is being pressed into service much sooner than would have been expected in the preseason, back when Matt Leinart was the team's starter and Derek Anderson the club's veteran backup. Leinart was cut on the eve of the regular season, and Anderson has played poorly in the team's 2-2 start, leaving head coach Ken Whisenhunt little choice but to roll with the youngster.
Hall has mopped up in two games for the Cardinals this year, including in last week's 41-10 shellacking at the hands of the San Diego Chargers, completing 9- of-16 passes for 85 yards and an interception as a pro.
The once-proud Cardinals offense managed only 124 yards in San Diego, one scoring drive that resulted in a 53-yard Jay Feely field goal in garbage time (the other Cardinals points came on a fumble return for a TD), along with three turnovers. The Chargers broke through for a whopping nine sacks in the game.
The Cardinals' low-level outing wasn't limited to the offense, as Arizona allowed four Chargers running backs to combine for 182 yards, while Philip Rivers passed for 241 yards and two touchdowns - both to Antonio Gates, who shredded the Arizona defense for seven catches and 144 yards.
Despite those unseemly numbers, the Cardinals enter Week 5 tied for first place atop the horrid NFC West, along with the similarly 2-2 Rams and Seahawks.
Though the Saints did have the luxury of facing the rookie Clausen last week, their 16-14 winning result was a little closer than the team would have liked.
Three field goals, the last one a 25-yard game-winner by recently re-signed kicker John Carney late in the fourth quarter, helped New Orleans get over the hump in a game that saw it squander a number of opportunities.
Drew Brees (275 yards on 33-of-48 passing) and company posted 27 first downs to the Panthers' 10, held the football for 38:22 of the game clock, and finished within spitting distance of 400 yards for the day, but a pair of turnovers - including a fumble by wideout Lance Moore on the Panthers 1-yard line in the first quarter - helped snuff out Saints drives in Carolina territory.
Meanwhile, the defense put together perhaps its top performance of the year, limiting Clausen and the Carolina offense to 19 or fewer yards on six of their nine drives, and also coming up big when it refused to allow the Panthers to get into field goal range on the potential game-winning march that followed Carney's last trifecta.
The victory helped the Saints remain even atop the NFC South along with the similarly 3-1 Falcons, and a half-game up on the 2-1 Buccaneers.
Sunday's game is a rematch of a 2009 NFC playoff contest, won by the Saints (45-14) in blowout fashion in what was the final NFL game for Arizona QB and probable Hall of Farmer Kurt Warner.
The Cardinals hold a 13-12 edge in their all-time regular series with the Saints, but were 31-24 road losers in the last such meeting, in Week 15 of the 2007 regular season. Arizona won the previous meeting, a 34-10 victory at Sun Devil Stadium in 2004. The Saints are 0-1 in Arizona since last meeting there in 2000.
As mentioned, the teams also met in the 2009 postseason, a 45-14 rout for the eventual Super Bowl Champion Saints from the Superdome.
Payton is 2-0 against both the Cardinals and Whisenhunt, including the playoff win.
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
Though the Saints didn't score with great frequency against the Panthers last week, Payton had to be pleased at the evolution of a running game that had mostly struggled over the season's first three weeks. Even with Pierre Thomas out due to a ankle injury, New Orleans rang up a season-high 121 ground yards, with rookie Chris Ivory (80 rushing yards) and recently re-signed vet Ladell Betts (47 rushing yards, 4 receptions) combining for 114 yards on 25 collective carries. Thomas (147 rushing yards, 1 TD, 17 receptions) could miss another week, and multi-purpose threat Reggie Bush remains sidelined with a broken fibula. All of that said, Arizona's biggest worry will be the Saints aerial attack, as New Orleans is fifth in NFL passing offense and is completing a league-best 73.8 percent of its passes. Brees (1131 passing yards, 7 TD, 2 INT) was a dazzling 23-of-32 for 247 yards and three touchdowns against the Cardinals this past January. Devery Henderson (13 receptions, 1 TD) and tight end Jeremy Shockey (20 receptions, 1 TD) had six catches apiece against the Panthers last week, while Moore (14 receptions, 3 TD) scored the Saints' lone TD in the victory. Marques Colston (18 receptions) has had a slow start to 2010, but had six catches for 83 yards and a touchdown against the Cardinals in the Jan. 16 playoff game.
There's nowhere to go but up for a Cardinals defense that was shredded in all facets by the Chargers a week ago. With Brees likely to put the ball in the air a great deal, a secondary including safeties Adrian Wilson (17 tackles, 2 INT, 1 sack) and Kerry Rhodes (24 tackles) along with cornerback Dominique Rodgers- Cromartie (14 tackles) figure to be busy. Rhodes scored the team's only touchdown on a 42-yard fumble return last week. Pass rushers Joey Porter (14 tackles, 1 sack) and Clark Haggans (21 tackles, 1 sack) will be trying to get to the difficult-to-sack Brees. A run defense that ranks just 30th in the league has been especially disappointing, especially given the presence of supposed star Darnell Dockett (16 tackles, 1 sack) in the trenches. Dockett did not trouble the stat sheet against the Chargers last week, and inside linebackers Paris Lenon (38 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) and Daryl Washington (24 tackles) were also complicit in the team's general inability to stop the run.
WHEN THE CARDINALS HAVE THE BALL
One of the major directives for Hall in his first career NFL start will be to take care of the football. The Cardinals are tied for last in the league in turnovers committed (13) along with the Giants and Panthers, and are tied for worst in the NFL in fumbles lost (7) along with the Titans, Giants and Panthers. The other job will be to get the ball in the hands of his playmakers, most notably wideout Larry Fitzgerald (19 receptions, 2 TD). Fitzgerald could be the only active Arizona player this week with more than six catches or 69 yards on the year, as wideouts Steve Breaston (knee) and Early Doucet (groin) are expected to remain sidelined. Arizona would also like to get its running game, which ranks a disappointing 18th in the league this season, going against the Saints. Tim Hightower (233 rushing yards, 2 TD, 7 receptions) is likely to remain the backfield starter despite recent objections over his role by former first-rounder Beanie Wells (94 rushing yards). The duo combined for 43 yards on 12 combined carries last week. The Cardinals line has been abysmal in pass protection thus far, allowing 15 sacks on the year.
One thing Hall will have going for him on Sunday is the injury status of the New Orleans defense. Saints safety Roman Harper (hamstring) is questionable for Sunday, and cornerback Tracy Porter (knee) and backup safeties Pierson Prioleau (bruised lung) and Chris Reis (shoulder) are all expected to be out for the contest. That situation should put extra pressure on a Saints pass rush that has been relatively slow out of the gate in 2010. Ends Will Smith (14 tackles, 1 sack) and Alex Brown (8 tackles) have combined for just one sack, with defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis (13 tackles, 3 sacks) doing more damage from his interior slot. On the back end, safety Malcolm Jenkins (20 tackles, 1 sack) and cornerback Jabari Greer (21 tackles) will be among the figures attempting to slow Fitzgerald and company. New Orleans is a disappointing 26th in the league against the run as Week 5 begins, and has had inconsistent production from a linebacking crew led by middle man Jonathan Vilma (28 tackles, 1 INT). Ellis and fellow DT Remi Ayodele (11 tackles) combined for nine tackles against the Panthers last week, however.
The Saints remain a somewhat difficult team to figure out from a fantasy standpoint, apart from Brees, who is always a must-start. That said, it looks like Moore and Shockey are going to be somewhat reliable fantasy plays until further notice. Betts got the type of touches last week that suggest he'll be a major part of the offense, at least until Thomas and/or Bush gets back. Wideouts Henderson, Colston and Robert Meachem have not been contributing enough to make them lead-pipe cinch starters. The reliable Carney might be a decent bye-week option at kicker, and the Saints defense is a better play than usual against an error-prone offense fielding a rookie quarterback.
On the Cardinals side, the only worthwhile fantasy play is Fitzgerald, and even he figures to have a shaky week given the rookie QB's presence in the lineup.
If the Saints were 31 points better than a Cardinals team that had Kurt Warner, Anqan Boldin, Karlos Dansby and Antrel Rolle, how much better are they than this shell of an Arizona club? No, New Orleans does not look as all-powerful as it was back on Jan. 16th, and this game is in the desert not on the bayou, but when you strip it down to brass tacks, Drew Brees is not getting anywhere close to losing to Max Hall.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 24, Cardinals 9