The Surging Saints

When the NFL season began, the New Orleans Saints were slipping into obscurity in the twilight of Drew Brees’ Hall of Fame career. The Saints had missed the playoffs three straight years with a record of 7-9 each time. They were eclipsed in their own division by the last two NFC champs, Carolina and Atlanta, and what seemed to be a rising force in Tampa Bay.

When the Saints lost their opener in Minnesota and the most notable takeaway was Adrian Peterson’s displeasure with Sean Payton, it looked like validation of the “fading into obscurity” theme. Getting blown out at home by New England a week later didn’t help. But something happened on the way to oblivion—New Orleans has completely turned their fortunes around. They haven’t lost since and their 6-2 record has them atop the NFC South.

Public perception of the Saints begins with Brees and the 38-year-old quarterback is playing at an MVP level. He leads the league in completion percentage (72%), ranks fifth in yards-per-attempt (8.1) and his traditional flaw—interceptions—are well under control. Brees ranks a solid ninth for interceptions as a percentage of passes thrown.

It’s safe to say that defense and the running game are not a part of the public perception with the Saints, unless it’s to criticize them. This year is different. Mark Ingram is one of 13 backs in the NFL on a pace for 1,000 yards and his 4.4 yards-per-carry ranks in the top half of those thirteen.

On the defensive side, the front four is playing outstanding football across the trenches. Cameron Jordan is leading the way with seven sacks, but the contributions of Alex Okafor, Sheldon Rankin and Tyeler Davision can’t be overlooked. In a conference whose best teams—the Eagles, Vikings and Seahawks—can all get after the quarterback, the Saints can keep pace.

The key to the rest of the season is going to be how the offensive line plays. There are no real standout performers and the interior is particularly weak. While Brees is good enough to get rid of the ball quickly and play high-percentage football, it will still take pass protection to let him get the ball downfield and get someone like a Ted Ginn sufficiently involved in the offense to win big games.

New Orleans’ schedule in the second half will provide sufficient opportunity for the offensive front to prove themselves. Two games with Atlanta are still ahead, as is a road trip to NFC West-leading Los Angeles and this Sunday is a visit to defensive-minded Buffalo.

This is an NFC race where the injury to Aaron Rodgers and the complete ineptitude of the Seattle offensive line mean there is no clear frontrunner, at least one with an established pedigree. If the Saints give Brees enough time to get the ball down the field, there’s no reason they can’t be the one that emerges.