By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — For the first time this year, the Patriots head into the weekend coming off a loss. And in what is some unfortunate timing for the Pats, they’ll be facing by far the best team on their schedule to date.

The New Orleans Saints come to town with a pristine 5-0 record, fresh off a thoroughly impressive road victory in Chicago. The Saints, after winning two tight division games to start the season, have put together three straight pretty convincing wins, in which they’ve won by an average of 18 points.

Drew Brees and the Saints boast the league’s second-best passing attack at 327 yards per game, trailing only Denver’s prolific 374, and Brees’ 8.57 yards per passing attempt rank him fourth in the NFL. But the Saints aren’t a one-trick pony, as they’ve allowed the fourth-fewest points per game in the NFL through five weeks.\

The Patriots badly want to avoid a losing streak, but doing so won’t be easy. Here’s what to watch for as the Pats prepare for New Orleans.

No. 9
If you’re talking about the Saints, you can’t start anywhere except at quarterback.

The never-ending football debate among those who like to argue about things which cannot be improved is always centered on Tom Brady or Peyton Manning as the best quarterback in football, but Drew Brees has proven over the years that he deserves to be right there in the conversation. Among active QBs, Brees is second in career completions (266 more than Brady), second in yards (1,624 more than Brady) and third in touchdowns (five fewer than Brady).

So after facing rookies E.J. Manuel and Geno Smith, Josh Freeman in his worst days, and Matt Ryan and Andy Dalton, it’s not exactly a bold statement to say Brees is head and shoulders better than any other quarterback the Patriots have faced this year.

And at 34 years old, Brees is as good as ever this year. He’s second in passing yards, fourth in touchdown passes and fourth in passer rating, so expect to see him pile up yards against the Patriots. It will be up to the defense to limit those drives to field goals instead of allowing touchdowns.

Rob “Day By Day” Gronkowski
If you haven’t noticed by now, Rob Gronkowski is just taking things “day by day.”

How’s he feeling? He’s just taking things day by day.

Is he ready to return? Taking things day by day.

Is he making progress? Day by day.

In fact, the Boston Herald’s Jeff Howe noted that Thursday was the 38th straight day of Gronkowski being “day to day.” That’s a lot of days to be day by day, you know?

But will Sunday be the day that No. 87 finally emerges from that great, big inflatable helmet at Gillette Stadium and lines up in Tom Brady’s offense to catch touchdowns? It seemed that way earlier in the week, but then on Friday we got some potentially bad news.

So again, we’ll just take this one “day by day.”

Jimmy Graham
The only comparable player to Rob Gronkowski in the league, Jimmy Graham has been tearing it up this season. He has 593 yards, tops in the NFL and 280 more than any other Saints player, and his six touchdowns lead the team, with Pierre Thomas second with just two.

Clearly, Graham is the man in New Orleans, and he presents a serious challenge for the Patriots. At times last week against Cincinnati, the Patriots had trouble slowing down tight ends Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert, and they’ll again have their hands full.

During Bill Belichick’s time with the Patriots, they’ve typically done a reasonably good job in limiting the damage from a team’s featured player. It seems to often be Belichick’s plan to try to shut down the most dangerous threat and put the pressure on the supporting cast to come through. This case is a bit different though, as limiting Graham’s production is easier said than done.

If you end up cursing at your TV during this one, Graham will probably be the reason why.

Look Out, Brady
With 15 sacks in five games, the Saints know how to get to the quarterback. And after Brady took four sacks last week, he’s going to have to keep his head on a swivel.

Third-year defensive end Cameron Jordan presents the biggest problem, as he leads the team with four sacks. But Junior Galette, with three sacks, has been a handful for opposing O-lines as well.

The four sacks Brady took last week weren’t completely uncommon, but he hasn’t been sacked more than four times in a game since 2003. The Patriots have had enough problems on offense this year, and if they can’t protect the quarterback, it becomes rather unlikely that things will begin to run smoothly. The offensive line will have to be at its best on Sunday.

Read more from Michael Hurley by clicking here, or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.


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