At mid-season, Saints are as strong a Super Bowl contender as ever
METAIRIE – The Saints are halfway through the season and things couldn’t have gone much better for them.
They are 7-1, have a 2½-game lead in the NFC South and are in the thick of the fight for the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
They lost Drew Brees for five games because of thumb surgery, won all five games and now he’s back – apparently as good as ever.
They lost Alvin Kamara for the last two games and Latavius Murray had back to-back 100-yard games. Kamara figures to be back soon, perhaps as soon as the next game – against Atlanta on Nov. 10 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
“I think overall the bye comes at a good time,” Saints head coach Sean Payton said this week.
The bye provides an opportunity to reflect on highlights of the first half of the season and contemplate what lies ahead in the second half.
Rookie of the Year
For a team with just five draft picks and no first-round pick, the Saints did pretty well.
Center Erik McCoy, the team’s second-rounder and highest pick, is the rookie of the year. He was drafted to be a starter, moved to the top of the depth chart a few days into training camp and has played very well.
But McCoy does have competition for this designation because the next pick – fourth-round safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson – has come on strong. He already was playing well on special teams and in a limited defensive role before nickelback P.J. Williams was suspended for the last two games before the bye.
Gardner-Johnson was outstanding in both games and with Williams returning, the Saints have better depth in the secondary even after releasing veteran cornerback Ken Crawley this week.
Most Improved Player
Fourth-year safety Vonn Bell has suddenly become one of the most valuable players on the team.
He has been a ballhawk, causing and recovering fumbles (including one touchdown return), playing effectively around the line of scrimmage and in pass defense.
Most Valuable Players
As good as Bell has been he has not even been the most valuable player on the defense because linebacker Demario Davis has been the MVP of the defense thus far.
With Brees missing so much time and Kamara missing some, Davis, the team’s leading tackler a year ago, has been the leader of a defense that has carried the team since Brees’ injury.
On offense, Teddy Bridgewater deserves consideration for his performance as Brees’ fill-in but Michael Thomas is the leading receiver in the NFL – regardless of who is throwing to him.
The Saints’ second-half schedule figures to be less challenging than its first-half schedule even though New Orleans has dominated its opponents to this point.
The first-half opponents’ cumulative record is 32-28-1, but taking away the outcomes against the Saints, their record is 31-21-1 (a .594 winning percentage) against the rest of the league. The cumulative record of the eight remaining opponents is 28-31 (.475). (These numbers were before the San Francisco-Arizona game Thursday night.)
New Orleans’ next four games are against NFC South rivals – Atlanta (1-7), twice, Tampa Bay (2-5) and Carolina (4-3) – giving it an opportunity to take control of the division as it seeks its third consecutive NFC South title.
San Francisco had the best record in the NFC (7-0) entering that Thursday night game. The Saints are tied with Green Bay, one game behind the 49ers in the loss column, but they host San Francisco on Dec. 8, giving then an opportunity to improve their standing in the conference.
New Orleans entered the season as one of the favorites to win the Super Bowl. The loss of the leading passer in NFL history for more than a month, not only didn’t change that perception, it probably enhanced it.
Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. His blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists and Louisiana Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association. You can follow…