During the good times, Sean Payton and Drew Brees formed the second-best coach-quarterback combination in the NFL. Subtract the coach, add a scandal, and these are the worst of times for the New Orleans Saints.
Brees still leads the league in passing yards, and he’s on the brink of breaking an important record, but the Saints are basically hopeless at 0-4. If they don’t win Sunday night, they might not win until November.
So as ugly as it is for New Orleans now, it could get a whole lot worse, and that’s why beating the San Diego Chargers is imperative if the Saints are to retain a shred of respectability.
Payton, suspended for the season for the bounty scandal, has been invited to the Superdome to watch Brees try to top Johnny Unitas’ record of touchdown passes in 47 consecutive games. It will be an emotional scene, and Brees is a heavy favorite to get at least one TD pass.
The Saints, 3½-point favorites, will need a big night from Brees to get the cover, and I’ll take my chances with a wounded team backed into a corner. Looking at power ratings, there is no value in laying this number. But looking at the situation, the favorite should be the play.
All but counted out as dead underdogs a week ago, the Saints went to Green Bay and turned in by far their best performance of the season in a 28-27 loss. Brees was sharp for the first time in four weeks, passing for 446 yards and three touchdowns.
The Chargers, meanwhile, were beating up on the Kansas City Chiefs. And while it does count for something, all the Chargers have done is beat three bad teams.
New Orleans is terrible, too, at least on the defensive side. But this week, expect that defense to play with more fire and put the heat on quarterback Philip Rivers. San Diego ranks 24th in total offense despite facing mostly weak opposition.
Last season, the Saints won 14 games, including one in the playoffs, and went 9-0 against the spread at home. But Payton has been gone, off in exile coaching his son’s youth football team, and so is the magic.
According to RJ Bell of Pregame.com, New Orleans is the biggest winless Week 5 favorite over a team with a winning record in 20-plus NFL seasons. Maybe the line is 3½ for a reason.
The case of this season’s Saints is unlike any we’ve seen. If they are to recapture the magic for one night, this is the time.
Four more plays for Week 5 (Home team in CAPS):
■ STEELERS (-3½) over Eagles: This is a good spot to back Pittsburgh, which is getting healthy and needs to avoid plummeting to 1-3. Trends support backing losing teams off a bye. The Steelers should get a big boost from the returns of safety Troy Polamalu, linebacker James Harrison and running back Rashard Mendenhall.
■ COLTS (+7) over Packers: A sputtering Green Bay offense will miss Pro Bowl receiver Greg Jennings. The line has not been protecting quarterback Aaron Rodgers, and the Packers’ running attack is lackluster. Expect the Colts to hang close, and they’ll be inspired to play for coach Chuck Pagano, who last week was diagnosed with leukemia.
■ Titans (+5½) over VIKINGS: Sharp money is on the underdog, so I’ll follow it. Tennessee is not as weak as its public perception, and Minnesota is slightly overvalued. Veteran quarterback Matt Hasselbeck gets the start for the Titans, and, although he stunk last week, he probably gives them a better shot to cover.
■ JETS (+8½) over Texans: Not every side you take in the NFL needs to make total sense. The Jets are getting ripped by everyone, and deservedly so, after the 34-0 whipping they took from San Francisco. The Mark Sanchez-Tim Tebow talk is out of control. Houston is 4-0 ATS and appears almost unbeatable. But this is a desperate home ‘dog getting a big number Monday night.
Last week: 3-2 against the spread
Contact sports betting columnist Matt Youmans at email@example.com or 702-387-2907. He co-hosts “The Las Vegas Sportsline” weekdays at 2 p.m. on ESPN Radio (1100 AM, 98.9 FM). Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.