Some sports name three stars of the game after the game. I'll do that one better: I'm going to name them before the Ravens even play. These will be the three stars of the game when the Ravens travel to the site of their Super Bowl XLVII win in New Orleans to face the Saints on Monday Night Football.
1. Quarterback Drew Brees
Stop me if you've heard this before, but the Saints are ridiculously good at home in prime time. A lot of that has to do with Brees, who is equally ridiculous on the ESPN-broadcasted weeknight stage. In his last six Monday Night Football games at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome — all victories — Brees has completed nearly 75 percent of his passes and thrown 23 touchdowns with just two interceptions. With the Ravens' patchwork secondary offering little resistance, he could be in line for another big day.
The Saints might be floundering below .500, but Brees is on pace for nearly 5,000 yards and more than 30 touchdowns on the season. Coach Sean Payton might have to rely on him more than he has otherwise this year because of the stout Ravens run defense. You don't have to ask this offense to pass the ball— they'll likely do it anyway — and Monday night will be no exception. Expect well over 40 pass attempts from Brees, around 30 completions, and a minimum of 300 yards and three touchdowns from the elite quarterback.
2. Wide receiver Steve Smith
The former NFC South veteran has made 15 catches for 316 yards and three touchdowns against the Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers this year, accounting for nearly half of his receiving yards and nearly all of his touchdowns with the Ravens. He spent the bye week both vacationing on the Panthers' dime and examining 100 plays from his first 10 games from the Ravens to see what he could improve on.
His first opportunity to show his rested, re-focused self is, as he said, in front of his entire family and all his ex-girlfriends on Monday night against a New Orleans secondary that just lost safety Raphael Bush and is missing big-ticket free agent safety Jairus Byrd on the back end as well. Smith will find himself in a familiar setting and victimize any cornerback defensive coordinator Rob Ryan might assign to him. Additionally, with the Saints back to their early season, blitz-happy ways, Smith's acumen in the underneath passing game could be key. Expect a similar performance to Smith's game against the Buccaneers, with him topping both the five-catch and 110-yard plateau he hasn't reached since.
3. Tight end Jimmy Graham
With rookie wide receiver Brandin Cooks done for the year and the stars of former standouts Kenny Stills, Robert Meachem, and Marques Colston dimming this year, someone has to catch the ball from Brees. Graham hasn't been up to his superstar standards this year, but he enters the game with a team-leading 59 catches, 623 yards, and seven touchdowns. He'll probably be the best offensive player on the field Monday.
While the Ravens have indicated they like safety Will Hill in a ball-hawk role in the back end of the secondary, he's the only defensive back on the roster with the size and speed to stay with someone like Graham. But the underbelly of the Ravens' pass defense has proven soft at times, with teams attacking rookie C.J. Mosley underneath and throwing at whomever the Ravens put in the slot on the opponent's third receiver.
Graham, fresh off a slow game in which he seemed to be affected by an early hit from Cincinnati Bengals safety George Iloka, is likely to come back strong against the Ravens. Despite the Ravens' success in limiting tight ends this year, Graham is a different breed. He'll find the end-zone and could break the 100-yard mark against the Ravens Monday.