It’s not just Drew Brees now. The new-look New Orleans Saints are running the football and actually fielding one of the NFL’s most respected defenses, believe it or not.
The Saints, who have surged from the bottom 10 to the top 10 in the league’s power rankings, are better built for the cold and wet conditions they will encounter Sunday in Buffalo. But almost everyone is playing the Bills, the hottest ‘dogs on the board in Week 10.
In the Westgate SuperContest, Buffalo plus-3 is the week's No. 1 consensus pick by a wide margin, and that might be bad news. Experienced NFL handicappers know to beware of popular public underdogs. In this case, several so-called sharps are on the Bills, too. And when any side becomes too popular, ‘dog or favorite, it blows up more often than not. So it will be interesting how this plays out.
After a six-game win streak, the Saints (6-2) are suddenly atop the NFC South and resembling serious Super Bowl contenders. In a conference that’s up for grabs, Philadelphia (8-1) is the favorite, but there’s not much separation between the Eagles and Saints.
Brees is still doing his thing at 38. He tops the league in completion percentage (71.6) and ranks in the top five in passing yards (2,214). His touchdown-to-interception ratio (13-4) is solid. He’s benefitting from an offensive line that is equally strong in the areas of pass and run blocking. Brees has been sacked only eight times — by comparison, Tom Brady has been dropped 21 times — and coach Sean Payton’s vision for a more balanced offense is developing. One big surprise is the Saints rank seventh in the league in rushing offense at 122.8 yards per game. Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara are meshing well as complimentary running backs.
The biggest surprise is New Orleans, despite a terrible first two weeks, ranks ninth in scoring defense (19.4 points per game) and 15th in total defense.
But a team that thrives in a dome is headed to Buffalo, where it’s raining with temperatures in the 40s. Brees rarely plays great in poor conditions. However, that narrative is also somewhat stale, because the Saints are a solid 6-6 in their past 12 road games.
Still, the Bills are popular underdogs because this is their comfort zone. Buffalo is 4-0 straight up and 3-1 against the spread at home, where its defense baffled Derek Carr and held the Oakland offense to 14 points two weeks ago.
The Bills rank fifth in scoring defense (18.6), and their offense is capable of trading shots with Brees. Tyrod Taylor, who is turning in quality quarterback play, has a new legit No. 1 wide receiver to work with in Kelvin Benjamin. LeSean McCoy ranks seventh in the league in rushing yards (546). Taylor will be a much tougher test for the New Orleans defense than Jameis Winston, Mitchell Trubisky and Brett Hundley the past three weeks.
The line has dropped from 3 with lopsided action. The Saints’ rise is the real deal, but the Bills are a play today and should be live ‘dogs getting 2½ points.
Four more picks for Week 10 (home team in CAPS):
* Packers (plus-4½) over BEARS: If it’s possible to have a one-man team, Green Bay had it with Aaron Rodgers. He’s the best player in the league, or he was before suffering a broken right collarbone early in a loss at Minnesota on Oct. 15. The Packers were 4-1 when Rodgers started and finished, and they are 0-3 without him. Behind backup quarterback Brett Hundley, Green Bay has failed twice in the home underdog role. But the Packers are underdogs to the Bears for the first time since 2008, and Chicago is a favorite for the first time this season. How will the Bears handle the role reversal? The line was inflated when it peaked at 5½. When the teams met Sept. 28, Green Bay was a 7-point favorite and won by 21. Rodgers is worth a lot, yet the adjusted price still seems a little high.
* Chargers (plus-5½) over JAGUARS: Similar to the Saints, Jacksonville’s rise is no fluke. The Jaguars run the ball and finally defend at a high level. Their defensive front will put intense pressure on Philip Rivers, who will get sacked multiple times. But the Jaguars have two obvious weaknesses — quarterback Blake Bortles and a home field where they rarely win. Rivers finds ways to hang in games and he’s at his best as a road ‘dog (23-12-1 against the spread in the past 36 in that role.)
* FALCONS (-3½) over Cowboys: Ezekiel Elliott might be worth just a point to the line, but the suspended Dallas running back will be missed more than that. Elliott was the driving force behind the Cowboys’ recent offensive outbursts. Dallas’ soft secondary will give Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Atlanta’s slumping offense an opportunity to get back on track. The Falcons, who blew out the Packers in Atlanta in Week 2, are overdue for a big game.
* Patriots (-7) over BRONCOS: The public is betting the road favorite. The sharps are jumping on the home ‘dog. With the line dropping from 7½, it’s time to lay the points (and play the Patriots on a six-point teaser.) Denver’s quarterback production has dipped about as low as it can go. Trevor Siemian was benched for Brock Osweiler, the equivalent of trading in a station wagon for a minivan. The offense is moving very slowly no matter who’s driving it. When he was with Houston last year, Osweiler faced New England twice. He passed for one touchdown with four interceptions and was sacked five times while the Texans were outscored 61-16. The Broncos have lost by margins of 28, 10, 21 and 13 points during their four-game skid. Bill Belichick is solving some of the Patriots’ defensive problems. New England allowed 110 points in its first four games yet only 51 points in its past four games.
Last week: 2-2-1 against the spread