Saints have realistic shot at 16-0
With a three-game lead, the Saints appear to be locks to capture the NFC South
The winning percentage of the Saints' future opponents is .359 -- lowest in the NFL
Michael Turner broke out of his slump, but Matt Ryan still can't get untracked
Things we learned from the Saints' 35-27 win over the Falcons Monday night at the Superdome ...
1. The 7-0 Saints are not only in the driver's seat in the NFC South, a legitimate run at a perfect season seems within reach. Monday night's wacky Saints victory was no piece of cake, but it was still plenty sweet for a New Orleans team that now holds a three-game lead over its nearest NFC South pursuer.
Can such a sizable lead with nine games remaining be squandered? Absolutely. Just ask last season's Broncos. But the Saints are now firmly in command of the NFC South, and having already matched the best start in the franchise's 43-year history, there's very little competition standing in the way of a 13 or 14-win season that could well earn the Saints homefield advantage in the NFC playoffs.
And dare we say it? A 16-0 record is not as implausible as it sounds when you check New Orleans' remaining schedule. In their final nine games, the Saints face only three more opponents that currently post winning records: New England (5-2), Atlanta (4-3) again, and Dallas (5-2), with the Patriots and Cowboys having to journey to the Superdome for their meeting. The Saints' remaining opponents have a .359 winning percentage -- the lowest of any NFL team.
New Orleans should be 10-0 when it next plays before the Monday night cameras, against visiting New England in Week 12. The Saints get a visit from up-and-down Carolina (3-4) next week, then go on the road against the struggling Rams (1-7) and Bucs (0-7).
Though it's Week 8, New Orleans finally played its first division opponent of the season. The Saints still get two games against the Bucs and Panthers, and another meeting with the Falcons. They also make a trip to punchless Washington, which could be a mismatch of epic proportions. The race in the NFC South isn't completely over, but it's looking ever so likely that once again the NFL's most change-happy division will have a champion who vaulted from worst to first in the span of two years.
Last month, Falcons linebacker Mike Peterson told me the Falcons were just trying to stay close to the Saints, and then beat them head-to-head. "You just look at them and keep trying to chase them,'' Peterson said. "You notice where they are and just keep chasing.''
Monday night, Atlanta had the chance to narrow the chase, and didn't quite get it done.
2. You think Saints, you think offense, but don't forget about the takeaway hungry D in New Orleans. This sounds funny to say in a game in which the Saints had four, count 'em, four 80-yard touchdown drives and 437 yards of offense, but the New Orleans defense has plenty to do with the success story unfolding in the Big Easy this season.
The Saints put normally efficient Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan through the first three-interception game of his 24-game NFL career, and that gives New Orleans a whopping 16 picks in its first seven games -- compared to 15 all of last year. And for the league-leading fifth time this season, the Saints turned one of those interceptions into points, on Jabari Greer's 48-yard return just before the half. (By the way, New Orleans' defense has scored more touchdowns than Cleveland's offense).
That play gave the Saints a 28-14 lead at the break, and that was just enough to withstand a second half that Atlanta dominated. For the season, New Orleans kept its per-game average of three takeaways intact, and now has 21 through seven games. That's a huge statistic for any team, but especially for one that has a high-powered offense like New Orleans, where short fields can quickly be turned into touchdowns and field goals.
As good as Greer's play was, middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma made the play of the game with 8:30 remaining, tipping a Ryan pass just enough to cause an interception by cornerback Tracy Porter at the Saints' 1, with New Orleans clinging to a narrow 28-24 lead. Saints safety Darren Sharper made his league-leading seventh interception at the New Orleans 5 to seal the win with three seconds left, finally closing out the plucky Falcons.
The Saints are going to give up some points, and some yards (Atlanta had a healthy 442); but New Orleans is making plays that really matter on defense, and all those takeaways and defensive touchdowns erase a lot of mistakes. And remember, the Saints defense was playing without two key starters in outside linebacker Scott Fujita (calf) and defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis (knee).
3. Michael Turner ran like it was 2008 again, and that's a very good sign for the rest of the Falcons' 2009. Until Monday night, the ex-Chargers backup looked like something of a one-year wonder in Atlanta, but the Falcons running game got its hammer back at the Superdome ... and just in time. Turner entered play with just one 100-yard rushing game, after posting eight during his 1,699-yard showing of last year.
Atlanta prioritized getting Turner back into some sort of rhythm against New Orleans, and wisely so, given that Atlanta's ground game was a key weapon in keeping the ball out of Drew Brees' hands. Turner answered the bell, churning for 89 yards and a touchdown on just 10 carries in the first half, and finishing with a season-high 151 yards on 20 attempts, with a season-best 7.6-yard average.
After averaging 4.5 yards every time he ran the ball last season, Turner's 3.4 average coming into the Saints game was alarming. He had topped 3.8 yards in just one game this year, and hadn't produced the explosive runs that were his specialty in '08. But Turner reached the Saints secondary fairly often Monday night, ripping off gains of 22, 13 and 37 yards in the first half and his exquisite never-stop-churning 24-yard run in the fourth quarter gave Atlanta a shot at the go-ahead touchdown.
4. Before we get too worked up about the Saints, they do have some issues that need addressing: For the second week in row, New Orleans had to scratch and claw to win. There wasn't a 21-point deficit to overcome like last week in Miami, but four turnovers (three fumbles, one interception), a missed 37-yard field goal, and a botched onside kick recovery made the win far closer than it should have been.
The ball-security issues have to be the biggest concern facing head coach Sean Payton, as he stares down next week's home game against Carolina. New Orleans fell behind 14-7 late in the first quarter after Brees was sacked by Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud at the Saints' 4, with defensive end Kroy Biermann recovering and returning the loose ball for a touchdown.
Later, careless fumbles by running backs Pierre Thomas and Mike Bell gave the Falcons life when New Orleans looked as if they were ready to put Atlanta away, and that successful last-minute onside kick by Atlanta could have been a disaster in another setting.
The good news? The Saints have proven the past two weeks they can definitely take a punch, and then answer with a blow of their own. After the Brees fumble, New Orleans scored the game's next 21 points to go up by 14 at the half. But it was still a game in the final seconds, and New Orleans has lost a little of its invincibility in not being able to bury opponents the past two weeks.
5. This might be as close to a sophomore slump as we see Matt Ryan endure. For the first time in his NFL career, Ryan has lost consecutive games. But that's not really worrisome, because it was bound to happen soon enough. More troubling is that Ryan entered the Saints game with six interceptions this season, and increased that number by 50 percent.
True, one of Ryan's picks was of the Hail Mary variety at game's end, and another was a tipped pass that deflected to cornerback Porter. But this marks three consecutive multiple-interception games for Ryan, with two in a win over Chicago in Week 6, two in last week's 16-point loss at Dallas and three against the Saints.
That's by far the most interceptions in any three-game stretch of his career, and Ryan had just 11 picks in 16 regular-season games as a rookie. With nine interceptions in his first seven games, he's on pace for 21 interceptions -- almost doubling his 2008 total.
And here's one more stat the Falcons didn't want to hear about in connection with Ryan's interceptions: Greer's 48-yard touchdown return was Ryan's first pick-six as a professional.
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