FOXBORO -- When you think of Tom Brady and Drew Brees -- two of the best quarterbacks to ever play -- you wouldn't necessarily think that their offenses have trouble scoring in the red zone. This season, you would be wrong.
The Patriots rank 31st in the NFL in red-zone offense, scoring touchdowns on just 35.3 percent of their trips inside their opponents' 20 yard line. The Saints, though they haven't dealt with nearly as much turnover with their offensive personnel, aren't much better. They've scored touchdowns on just 42.1 percent of their trips into the red zone, which ranks 29th in the league.
Conversely, the Patriots have been one of the best red-zone defenses in the league. Allowing touchdowns on just over a third (35.71 percent) of opponents' trips inside its 20, New England's 'D' ranks seventh stingiest in those situations.
Patriots safety Devin McCourty said that the key to holding teams to field goals once they get inside the red area is to remember the scouting reports.
"I think for us the biggest thing in the red area is just knowing what a team likes," McCourty said. "Everything happens a lot faster down there because the field's not as long. We just try to zero in once we get in that area and try to understand the differences."
When in the red zone this season, the Saints like to pass. They've trusted Drew Brees to throw on 64 percent of their 44 red-area snaps, which is no surprise given Brees' ability and the targets he has to work with.
At 6-foot-7 and 265 pounds, tight end Jimmy Graham is perhaps the best combination of size and athleticism the league has to offer. Though Patriots defenders have a similar body type to practice against in Rob Gronkowski, they know Graham will be a handful when the Saints get close. He has racked up 100 yards in four consecutive games, and he's a preeminent jump-ball threat. The former basketball player at the University of Miami has made 28 of his 37 receptions while lined up as a receiver, according to ESPN.
"He'll be a tough matchup just because they use him in every way possible," McCourty said. "You don't know where he's going to line up each play. He's outside, he's inside. For us, having an awareness of where he's at and understanding how our coverage will pertain to getting him [will be important]. We're studying a lot, practicing hard this weekend and just trying to watch the film to be prepared. We know there's also gonna be some things that we haven't seen where they use him a little different so it'll be a tough matchup."
Six-foot-four receiver Marques Colston has his own natural attributes that could make him an effective red-zone target.
McCourty raised his eyebrows when asked if Colston is a forgotten man in an offense that features Graham as it's No. 1 option.
"Not with us," McCourty said. "We know who he is. He's a really good player and similar to Graham with that really big catch radius and just being a bigger guy. He can catch a lot of passes no matter where Brees puts them. With Brees, he usually puts it where the defender isn't. We're just going to have to try to play the ball in certain situations and just try to be competitive."
The Patriots have done a relatively good job of that to this point in the season. They've allowed just four passing touchdowns (three of which have come inside the red zone), but two of those were reeled in by Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez. With another versatile tight end on the schedule this week, they Patriots know they'll have to locate him first before trying to keep him from making a game-changing play.
Even then, that's far from guaranteed.
"I think the biggest thing is just trying to compete with him," McCourty said of Graham. "There's gonna be some balls that are gonna be thrown in an area that only he can catch and we're just going to try to make it tough. He's a great player and we know on Sunday he's gonna make some of his plays, we just gotta make some of ours.
"I think his numbers and what he's done so far this season speak for itself," McCourty added. "He'll be probably the toughest matchup we've had, and we've had some pretty good matchups so far."