New Orleans on edge for epic showdown

NEW ORLEANS -- There's a crackle in the air.

I've been in downtown New Orleans since Saturday afternoon, and the anticipation for Monday night's blockbuster between the New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints reminds me of the edginess that would encroach upon Las Vegas in the incandescent hours before a Mike Tyson fight.

All eyes will be fixed on the Superdome to see a monster game on the national stage. Two elite quarterbacks, an offensive guru against a defensive mastermind, a potential Super Bowl preview and the pursuit of perfection.

"The magnitude of this game is huge," said "Monday Night Football" analyst Jon Gruden. "Bragging rights are important, and all your peers are watching, and you know that.

"The Patriots don't want anyone to go 16-0 but them. There's going to be incentive for them to win this game. For the Saints, why wouldn't you want to take out the New England Patriots on national TV to increase your credibility and maintain home-field advantage? They are hard to beat in that dome and home-field advantage for them in the NFC is huge."

While the Patriots' prime-time game against the Indianapolis Colts a couple of weeks ago had a special feel about it, this one seems more enormous.

Maybe it's the crowd that started gathering here two days ago for the Bayou Classic between Grambling and Southern in the Superdome -- some locals told me the traffic was on par with a Super Bowl -- or the passionate college fans who were sent into as tizzy over LSU's overtime victory over Arkansas on Saturday night.

Out in the French Quarter for Sunday's games, bar patrons could be heard screaming down Bourbon Street every time the Houston Texans made a play to threaten local boy Peyton Manning and the Colts' pursuit of perfection. Even hometown heroes rate second to the Saints.

All of that, however, was the undercard for Monday night's main event.

The Patriots and Saints were Gruden's preseason choices to meet in the next Super Bowl.

The last time the Patriots played in the Superdome was when they shut down the "Greatest Show on Turf" to win their first Super Bowl.

What has Ron Jaworski impatiently rubbing his hands together are the explosive offenses. Tom Brady and Drew Brees might exchange haymakers like Muhammad Ali and Leon Spinks did in the "Battle of New Orleans" 31 years ago.

Jaworski, Gruden's press box mate, foresees a game that could generate more than 80 points.

"They are clearly elite teams," Jaworski said. "Both have explosive players on offense, solid running games, and I think it's going to be a very high-scoring game. It's not very often that you look at a game and say it's going to be in the 40s, but with these two offenses right now, this one could be that kind of game."

Each team has problems on defense. The Saints' secondary is dented. Jaworski expects Brady to spread the field to force the Saints to "to bring [their] fourth- and fifth-best corners on the field. That is not a good sign when you have Tom Brady coming in with a plethora of receivers and tight ends."

Jaworski called the Patriots' defense "inconsistent" and doesn't detect them "working in harmony like you are used to seeing." Brees' ability to scan the field quickly, recognize a weakness and deliver a pinpoint pass should do some damage. The Saints offer a much more talented and diverse backfield than what the Patriots faced in Indianapolis.

"If you like quarterbacking and you like offense, you want to record this one," Jaworski said. "It could be one for the ages."