New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton noted something Monday that resonated. During his team’s five-game winning streak, the Saints have won in some various ways.
“That’s been encouraging,” Payton said.
For the past few years, the Saints had just one path to win. Drew Brees had to do it all. Brees is undeniably great, but more often than not he couldn’t drag his team to wins. New Orleans has had three 7-9 seasons in a row. It was frustrating. Payton and Brees are one of the best coach-quarterback combinations in the NFL, and they hadn’t had a winning record since 2013.
This season, the Saints are probably the best team you haven’t heard enough about. Maybe they were under the radar because preseason expectations were low. Perhaps you tuned them out after an 0-2 start. It’s possible you don’t believe their defensive surge is real. But they’re 5-2 and if they can keep playing this way on both sides of the ball, they’re a contender in the NFC.
The Saints’ defense has been one of the best in the NFL for its last five games. Yes, that sentence seems strange, but it’s true. Now the caveats: The schedule hasn’t been that tough, and it’s not like the first two games didn’t happen. Against Minnesota and New England, the Saints allowed a 141.4 passer rating and nearly 400 passing yards per game. Then it totally changed in Week 3 and hasn’t stopped.
Here are the opponents, quarterbacks and their passer rating against the Saints during their five-game winning streak (their bye was Week 5):
Week 3, at Carolina, Cam Newton: 43.7
Week 4, vs. Miami (in London), Jay Cutler: 71.1
Week 6, vs. Detroit, Matthew Stafford: 62.3
Week 7, at Green Bay, Brett Hundley: 39.9
Week 8, vs. Chicago, Mitchell Trubisky: 46.9
Three of those games were pretty friendly for a defense. Cutler has been bad coming out of retirement, Hundley was making his first career start and Trubisky is a rookie who had completed 12 passes in his previous two games combined. Then again, Newton is a former NFL MVP and Stafford is obviously capable. Newton hadn’t posted a rating that low since Oct. 30, 2014. Stafford hasn’t had a rating of less than 80 in any other game this season.
The Saints caught some breaks on the schedule but it’s undeniable that since those first two games, they’re shutting down whoever they’re playing. This is a fairly young team, especially on defense, and the Saints’ confidence is growing.
Cornerback Marshon Lattimore will start to get some defensive rookie of the year buzz. One cornerback can’t transform an entire defense, but it helps. Lattimore has played at a high level all season and has been the biggest difference in this surge. He closed out a 20-12 win with an interception with less than 1:30 left. In previous years, if the Saints’ offense scored just 20 points they had no chance. From a 17-13 win over the Atlanta Falcons on Nov. 21, 2013 through Week 2 of this season, the Saints were 1-19 in games in which they scored 20 or fewer points. In this five-game winning streak, they’ve won twice scoring 20 points. This is a different Saints team. It’s not just Lattimore either. Their secondary is much improved and they’re more disruptive up front, led by defensive end Cameron Jordan and his fantastic all-around season.
Yet, it’s OK if there’s skepticism. The schedule will get tougher, and the Saints defense relies on a lot of young players. Five games is significant but not enough of a sample to prove the Saints defense has completely changed. We can count on Brees. Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram will keep the running game going, too. The offense will be good. New Orleans has gained the second-most yards in the NFL, trailing only the Patriots. We just don’t know yet if the defense can hang onto their gains all season.
This Saints’ season started with a lot of uncertainty. There were the three losing seasons in a row. Brees’ contract voids after this season, and while it’s impossible to imagine Brees playing with any other team next year, there’s no guarantee. The first two weeks of this season made it seem like the Saints would waste another year of the Payton-Brees combination. Then the Saints came alive.
Take a look around the NFC. No team is a sure thing. People have said often over the past few years that if the Saints could just put together an average defense, they could contend again. Finally, that defense has come along. The next step is finding out if that defense, and the Saints as a whole, are here to stay.
Here are the power rankings following Week 8 of the NFL season:
32. Cleveland Browns (0-8, Last week: 32)
If you were up early and watched the Browns lose to the Vikings, it seemed like progress. They were competitive for a while. And they still lost by 17 points. The Browns have trailed by double digits in the fourth quarter of seven of their eight games.
31. San Francisco 49ers (0-8, LW: 31)
The question becomes when Jimmy Garoppolo gets his first start. San Francisco has two games and then a bye. Starting him after the bye would give him three weeks to learn the offense. But, maybe they put him in sooner than that. The 49ers didn’t trade a second-round pick to keep watching C.J. Beathard play quarterback.
30. Indianapolis Colts (2-6, LW: 30)
There was a report that the Colts would be willing to trade receiver T.Y. Hilton. If a contender is willing to give a ton for him, fine, and the Colts would probably need a great return to swing a deal. But how is trading a young receiver who led the NFL in receiving yards good for the franchise, now or in the future when Andrew Luck is back?
29. New York Giants (1-6, LW: 29)
The Giants should be one of the most active teams at the trade deadline, as they try to get assets for the future and open up spots for younger players to get a shot. They also don’t have a lot of tradeable contracts, though NJ.com suggested cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie as one.
28. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-5, LW: 27)
DeSean Jackson has not had the impact the Buccaneers had hoped. Jackson has led the NFL in yards per catch two of the past three seasons but is averaging just 15.9 yards per catch this season, 2 fewer yards than last season. In Jackson’s eight seasons since his rookie year, he has averaged fewer than 16 yards per catch only once. He’s catching 49 percent of his targets, and that would be a career worst. His two touchdowns are from 25 and 4 yards. It’s baffling that he and Jameis Winston haven’t produced more big plays.
27. Arizona Cardinals (3-4, LW: 28)
The Cardinals have to find some pass rushers in the offseason. Chandler Jones has eight sacks. The rest of the team combined has five, and no player besides Jones has more than one.
26. New York Jets (3-5, LW: 26)
Matt Forte created a stir when he took a shot at offensive coordinator John Morton as he complained the Jets didn’t run enough in a loss Sunday. It was a bit odd why he got only four carries in a rainstorm. “Everybody knows that that was the game plan and that’s what we wanted to do,” Forte said, according to Newsday. “I don’t have to get on a headset and tell somebody how to do their job.” It’s also worth noting that Forte had just 7 yards on his carries and as a team the Jets averaged just 2 yards per carry. It’s hard to keep calling runs when they’re not going anywhere.
25. Chicago Bears (3-5, LW: 23)
Remember all the early season excitement about Tarik Cohen? As Jordan Howard has gotten hot, Cohen has been marginalized in the offense. He had a 70-yard catch in Week 7, but that was his only touch. That and a 14-yard catch in Week 6 are his only 10-yard plays since Week 3. On Sunday, Cohen had only a couple rushing yards on four carries, and one catch for 6 yards. The Bears desperately need offensive playmakers, and they need to figure out a way to get Cohen going again.
24. Miami Dolphins (4-3, LW: 18)
The most deceiving thing in the NFL is probably a team whose record is bolstered by a lot of close wins. A great record in close games is not sustainable, and it leads people to believe you’re better than you really are. The Dolphins are 4-0 in games decided by six points or less. If you’ve seen them play, you know they look nothing like at team with a winning record.
23. Cincinnati Bengals (3-4, LW: 25)
We’ve seen bits and pieces from Joe Mixon, but the breakout hasn’t come yet. He looked great on a 67-yard catch Sunday, but gained only 18 rushing yards on 11 carries against a bad Colts team. He’s averaging just 3 yards per carry this season. It’s tough to tell how much a horrible offensive line is to blame.
22. Green Bay Packers (4-3, LW: 22)
It’s possible that the Saints’ pass defense is really good, and that’s why Brett Hundley struggled so much in his first start. We’ll get a long look at him in a home game against the Detroit Lions next Monday night, after he has had a bye week to prepare. Maybe he can rekindle some optimism for the Packers.
21. Oakland Raiders (3-5, LW: 20)
The Raiders had the fewest sacks in the NFL last season. This season only one team (Tampa Bay) has fewer sacks per game than the Raiders, who have 12 in eight games. That’s hard to explain, given that the Raiders have Khalil Mack. The Raiders overcame the lack of a pass rush last season, but this season it’s catching up to them.
20. Denver Broncos (3-4, LW: 17)
Take note of this quote from cornerback Chris Harris, via Nick Kosmider of the Denver Post: “It’s hard to win when you don’t score points.” It has to be frustrating for this world-class defense to see a season slipping away. The Broncos’ next step is probably benching quarterback Trevor Siemian, but I’m not sure that fixes everything.
19. Baltimore Ravens (4-4, LW: 24)
The early indications are that Joe Flacco will be able to play Sunday, after suffering a scary collision on a dirty hit by Dolphins linebacker Kiko Alonso last week. That’s good for the Ravens because the thought of Ryan Mallett starting will keep their fans up at night.
18. Tennessee Titans (4-3, LW: 21)
Rookie receiver Corey Davis should return from a hamstring injury this week. The Titans need something to spark them. They are 4-3 but haven’t been too impressive. Davis has shown short bursts of his incredible talent, but it’s time for the first-round pick to stay healthy and do it consistently. That could give the Titans a boost they need.
17. Los Angeles Chargers (3-5, LW: 19)
It’s a little strange that Tyrell Williams isn’t a bigger part of the offense. With Keenan Allen out last season, Williams had a fine 69-1,059-7 season and looked like he was on his way to being a nice target for Philip Rivers. With Allen back this season Williams has 22-322-1 through eight games and has games of 15, 22, 27, 11 and 24 yards. It seems like Los Angeles could benefit from having someone other than Allen be a factor in the passing game.
16. Detroit Lions (3-4, LW: 14)
Sunday’s loss was disappointing, but they have a chance to get on a winning streak. Their next three games are at Green Bay, vs. Cleveland and at Chicago. If they’re not 6-4 coming out of those three games, that will be the real disappointment.
15. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-3, LW: 15)
I like the Marcell Dareus acquisition. The Jags gave up a conditional sixth-round pick this year, which is very little for a former All-Pro who was once the third pick of the draft behind Cam Newton and Von Miller. He was clearly out of the Bills’ future plans, but he could make the Jaguars’ defensive line even nastier, and it was already very good without him.
14. Washington Redskins (3-4, LW: 12)
Kirk Cousins’ future became a lot tougher to figure out with the Jimmy Garoppolo trade. While Cousins will do just fine next offseason, the 49ers were a major bargaining chip for him. They had a much-publicized desire for Cousins and a ton of salary-cap space. Now that’s off the table, and there aren’t as many obvious suitors for a quarterback who will be 30 next August and will demand a record-setting contract.
13. Dallas Cowboys (4-3, LW: 10)
We can’t be sure if there’s another legal turn coming in the Ezekiel Elliott saga. But if this is it and his six-game suspension starts now (and I’m assuming so, which is why they drop in the rankings this week), Dallas’ next six games are vs. Kansas City, at Atlanta, vs. Philadelphia, vs. L.A. Chargers, vs. Washington, at N.Y. Giants. I think 3-3 is realistic. That would put the Cowboys at 7-6 and probably needing to win their final three games. Not impossible. And anything less than 3-3 might knock Dallas out of the playoff picture, depending if a 9-7 team can get in this season.
12. Houston Texans (3-4, LW: 11)
Lost in the (justified) Deshaun Watson hype is the Texans did not pass their first non-Browns defensive test since losing J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus. They couldn’t slow down Russell Wilson. Too many of those big plays Wilson made were easy. That’s not a good sign going forward. Watson has been playing at a record-setting level, and he might need to keep that up if the defense will struggle like this.
11. Buffalo Bills (5-2, LW: 16)
It’s not hard to figure out how the Bills are doing this. They’re plus-14 in turnover margin. No other NFL team is better than plus-8. Buffalo has turned it over just three times all season and have forced multiple turnovers in each game this season except one, a 9-3 loss at Carolina. It’s hard to believe the Bills can sustain this pace in turnover margin, but it’s working so far.
10. Carolina Panthers (5-3, LW: 13)
Because he’s not a quarterback, we probably don’t talk enough about how valuable linebacker Luke Kuechly is. The Panthers are a totally different team without him, and not many defensive players have that impact. No other NFL inside linebacker is as valuable as Kuechly.
9. Atlanta Falcons (4-3, LW: 9)
Kyle Shanahan did many things well as Falcons offensive coordinator, and one of them was to make sure Julio Jones got as many targets as he could handle. Jones had an insane 203 targets in 2015, and 129 in 14 games last season. That’s more than nine per game. This season, Jones has had more than nine targets just twice in seven games. This shouldn’t be that hard: Get your potential Hall of Fame receiver the ball as often as possible.
8. Minnesota Vikings (6-2, LW: 7)
The Dalvin Cook injury looked like it would wreck the Vikings, but Jerick McKinnon has taken a huge step this season. He was really good Sunday with 122 total yards and a touchdown. Cook is the superior player but McKinnon has played well enough that the drop hasn’t been too steep.
7. Los Angeles Rams (5-2, LW: 6)
Next up for the Rams is an interesting game at the Giants. The Giants aren’t good, but the Rams are flying across country for an early game, which can be tricky. It’s one of those games where if Los Angeles is for real — and there’s no reason to believe it isn’t — this shouldn’t be a tough game.
6. New Orleans Saints (5-2, LW: 8)
For the first time all season, rookie running back Alvin Kamara played more than half of the offensive snaps. His percentage of snaps has increased every week since Week 2. After Mark Ingram said repeatedly that he “sucked” on Sunday, it’s fair to wonder if Kamara’s usage will continue to grow.
5. Seattle Seahawks (5-2, LW: 5)
Russell Wilson has 786 yards and seven touchdowns in his past two games. We’ve seen this before: When Wilson gets hot, he’s scalding. It helps him that Paul Richardson has developed into a very nice target at receiver.
4. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-2, LW: 4)
There doesn’t seem to be any reason for the Steelers to give Martavis Bryant more snaps or targets than JuJu Smith-Schuster. Smith-Schuster looks like the real deal, and it seems like the rookie is popular among his teammates and through the city of Pittsburgh too.
3. New England Patriots (6-2, LW: 3)
I hate the Jacoby Brissett trade even more now that the Patriots have dealt Jimmy Garoppolo. But trading Garoppolo was the only logical way that situation could have played out. Garoppolo is a free agent in March and the Patriots couldn’t retain him unless they spent a ton to give him the franchise tag. It’s also obvious the Patriots expect many more good years out of 40-year-old Tom Brady.
2. Kansas City Chiefs (6-2, LW: 2)
Kareem Hunt hasn’t scored since Week 3, and Monday night was his third game of the past four averaging less than 4 yards per carry. Hunt is still impacting every game but his pace from the first few weeks had to slow down, and it has.
1. Philadelphia Eagles (7-1, LW: 1)
With how well Carson Wentz has played, it’s surprising Alshon Jeffery has been so quiet. His long touchdown catch against the 49ers was just one play, but maybe that’s the spark. If Jeffery plays like the true difference maker he has been in the past, the Eagles get a lot better. And they’re already pretty good.
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