The last NFL team to go unbeaten in the regular season gets its second chance in three weeks to stop an opponent from chasing that same goal.
The New England Patriots hope to do better this time.
The club that went 16-0 in 2007 will visit the New Orleans Saints on Monday night after rebounding from a one-point loss to the Indianapolis Colts with a 31-14 win over the New York Jets. The defensive star of Sunday’s victory is eager to face the improved competition.
“Definitely looking forward to it, just like we were looking forward to playing against the Indianapolis Colts,” cornerback Leigh Bodden said Monday. “They’re undefeated. It’s always good to play a great team like that, and they’re on a roll.”
Bodden had three interceptions against New York’s Mark Sanchez and returned one for a 53-yard touchdown. But Sanchez is a struggling rookie. Drew Brees is the NFL’s second-leading passer and guides a Saints offense averaging NFL highs of 36.9 points and 420.5 yards per game.
New Orleans (10-0) also has an outstanding running game, ranked fifth in the league.
“We have Indianapolis leading the league in passing. New Orleans, I would say, is a little more balanced,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “They beat everybody and they beat a lot of teams pretty soundly.”
The Patriots are 7-3, but the losses were 16-9 to the Jets, 20-17 in overtime to the Denver Broncos and 35-34 to Indianapolis on a touchdown pass and extra point with 13 seconds left.
They also might be undefeated if Wes Welker had not been sidelined at New York, if they won the overtime coin toss in Denver — or if Belichick decided to punt to the Colts rather than go for it on fourth-and-2 at his 28-yard line with a six-point lead and just over two minutes left.
On Sunday, Welker had career highs of 15 catches for 192 yards. He leads the NFL with 79 receptions, three more than Reggie Wayne, and is averaging 9.9 in the eight games he played. He’s on pace for 138 catches, five fewer than Marvin Harrison’s NFL record.
In his other two seasons since being traded by the Miami Dolphins, Welker had 112 catches in 2007 and 111 last year, the most in the NFL over that stretch.
Opponents put their best cornerbacks on 6-foot-4 Randy Moss, often double teaming him. That leaves the 5-foot-9 Welker, with his quickness and cutting ability, often matched up against linebackers.
As a rookie with Miami in 2004, Welker returned a punt 71 yards to the 2-yard line in a 29-28 win over New England. Sammy Morris, now with the Patriots, scored on the next play.
In 2006, Welker had nine catches for 77 yards against New England, but the Dolphins lost 20-10.
“We had someone double (Welker) when he was playing in the slot in Miami and he we still couldn’t cover him,” Belichick said.
After that season, the Patriots sent Miami second- and seventh-round choices in the 2007 draft for Welker, who has turned into one of the NFL’s best receivers.
“If you can’t beat him, join him,” Belichick said. “If you can’t stop him, then try to get him on your team.”
Welker wasn’t drafted out of Texas Tech in 2004 and signed as a free agent with San Diego. The Chargers waived him after one game and Miami signed him.
The Patriots scouted him in college and drafted his quarterback, Kliff Kingsbury, in the third round in 2003. Kingsbury spent the 2003 season on injured reserve, was cut six days before the 2004 season and played just one NFL game, in 2005 for the Jets.
“We got the wrong guy. I did a pretty bad job on that,” Belichick said. Welker “was definitely on our radar, but you look at him and he doesn’t have great time speed. He doesn’t have great size. But he’s quick, he catches the ball.”
Getting Welker provided an added benefit for the Patriots. They took him from a division rival.
“It’s one thing to acquire a player,” Belichick said. “It’s another to acquire a player that you don’t have to play against twice a year.”
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