The NFC South leading New Orleans Saints visit the Jacksonville Jaguars this afternoon, looking to keep the momentum of a three game winning streak. The Saints, who sit at 4-1, have accomplished this streak without the services of quarterback Drew Brees, who continues to rehab after thumb surgery. They take on the host Jaguars, who are 2-3 and enter this game with a backup quarterback of their own after losing starter Nick Foles in the opening game. This is just the seventh time New Orleans and Jacksonville have ever met. The Saints hold the edge in the series 4-2, with both losses coming in Jacksonville, where New Orleans has a 1-2 record.
The first time these two played was in New Orleans on October 6, 1996, in just the Jaguars second year of existence. The Saints came into the game with an 0-5 record. All four members of the famed Dome Patrol linebacking corps were gone, and the stifling defense that keyed the first great era of New Orleans football just a shadow of it's former self. The Saints would be outgained by Jacksonville in this game, and a Jaguar field goal with just 5:15 to play would give the visitors a 13-10 lead. New Orleans quarterback Jim Everett responded by leading his squad on an 81-yd. march, completing 5 of 7 passes on the drive. Everett's six yard touchdown pass to Torrance Small with just 1:45 to go would give the Saints a 17-13 victory, and their first win of the season. New Orleans head coach Jim Mora would resign just two weeks later, severing the last major link to a decade of playoff contention as they stumbled to a 3-13 record. The Jags and Saints wouldn't meet again until November 21, 1999, this time in Jacksonville. New Orleans was now coached by Mike Ditka, in a dark three year period that included the horror of the Billy Joes at quarterback (Tolliver and Hobert) among other franchise lowlights. New Orleans visited a Jaguar team that had started 8-1, and would eventually advance to the AFC championship game. The Saints put up a fight early, going into the halftime break tied at 17. New Orleans simply had no answers for Jacksonville quarterback Mark Brunell though, who threw for 351 yards and two touchdowns, or Jags wideout Jimmy Smith and his 9 catches for 220 yards as Jacksonville pulled away in the second half on their way to a 41-23 win.
New Orleans would travel to Jacksonville again in their next meeting on December 21, 2003. A game between two teams that were having forgettable seasons would end with quite the memorable finish. The Jaguars leaned on running back Fred Taylor, who picked up 194 yards rushing and added 31 more in receiving for the day. Jacksonville held a 20-13 lead through the fourth quarter right up to the final play of regulation. Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks completed a short pass to Donte Stallworth, who proceeded to lateral to teammate Michael Lewis, then flipping the ball to running back Deuce McAllister. The Saints back would then lateral to wide receiver Jerome Pathon, who found an opening and sprinted for a miraculous 75-yd. touchdown on the last play. The improbable score would have tied the game, except New Orleans kicker John Carney would miss the extra point attempt, dooming his team to a 20-19 loss.
The play became known as "The River City Relay", and remains one of the most shocking, yet disappointing, plays in New Orleans Saints history.
Saints head coach Sean Payton has a 3-0 record against Jacksonville, including a 1-0 mark on the road. The first meeting New Orleans had against the Jaguars with Payton at the helm was on November 4, 2007 in the Superdome. A wild first quarter saw each team score 17 points, and the home Saints took a 24-17 lead at the half. Quarterback Drew Brees was magnificent, completing 35 of 49 passes for an eye-popping 445 yards and three touchdowns. Saints receiver Marques Colston was equally impressive, catching 10 Brees passes for 159 yards. Cornerback Mike McKenzie would return a third quarter interception 75 yards for a touchdown, helping New Orleans pull away for a 41-24 victory.
The Saints would next face the Jaguars on October 2, 2011. It would be the last time these two faced off in Jacksonville. Brees was again brilliant, completing 31 passes for 351 yards as New Orleans outgained Jacksonville in total yardage 503-274. Saints tight end Jimmy Graham caught 10 of those passes for 132 yards and a score on route to a 23-10 win.
There would again be plenty of offensive fireworks in the last match up between these two, on December 27, 2015 in New Orleans. Drew Brees would find ten different receivers on his way to 412 yards passing and three touchdowns on the day. He had solid ground support as well, as running back Tim Hightower plowed his way to 122 yards rushing and two touchdowns, while the Saints piled up 537 total yards. Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles threw for 368 yards of his own, but it wasn't enough to overcome a 24-6 Saints halftime lead on their way to a 38-27 triumph.
The Saints have continued to win without Brees by playing physical on both sides of the ball and making key plays in big moments. Offensively, Teddy Bridgewater is coming off his best game as a pro. Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas is facing a big matchup against Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey, if Ramsey plays, but the league's leading receiver should continue to produce regardless of coverage against him. New Orleans running back Alvin Kamara is hobbled by an ankle injury and is a game time decision. A Saints offensive line that has played dominating football must again control a physical Jacksonville defensive front to give Bridgewater time to throw and maintain balance, especially if Kamara is limited.
Jaguars rookie quarterback Gardner Minshew has been spectacular at times since replacing Foles. He has big play receivers like D.J. Chark and a bruising running back in Leonard Fournette around him, but the Jaguars have had struggles along their offensive line. The Saints will unleash their fierce pass rush on Minshew, while cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore and Eli Apple look to continue their shutdown pass coverage. Linebacker Demario Davis and the New Orleans defensive line have shut down some of the league's best running games, and the overall play of the Saints defense the last few weeks has been outstanding.