Saints are the team to beat in the NFC

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Benjamin Watson
(Photo: Parker Waters)

NEW ORLEANS – The New Orleans Saints are the team to beat in the NFC.

Yes, the season is only halfway over and much can and almost certainly will change between now and the start of the playoffs after New Year’s.

But as of Nov. 4, the Saints are the team to beat in the NFC.

Plain and simple.

It’s not just the fact that they knocked off the NFL’s last unbeaten team when they beat the Los Angeles Rams 45-35 on Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, though that’s a big part of it.

It’s not just that the victory gives them a tie-breaker over the Rams, which would place the NFC Championship Game in the Superdome instead of the L.A. Coliseum if these two teams continue to be the best in the NFC. (Carolina certainly looks capable of joining the NFC title competition.)

It’s also that New Orleans has defeated four division leaders in its last four games. It’s also that it has won a physical, defense-oriented outdoor game in Baltimore, won in Minnesota when Drew Brees passed for a paltry 120 yards and won by outscoring the Rams as Brees passed for 346 yards and four touchdowns.

The Saints can win any type of game because they have won every type of game.

Yes it’s early and much can change.

The Saints go back on the road next week to play a good, though not great, Cincinnati team.

Then the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles come to the Superdome, followed by an improving Atlanta team. Then comes a three-game road trip that concludes with a visit to Carolina, which keeps winning to stay within one game of New Orleans.

The regular season concludes with a visit from Pittsburgh, one of the hottest teams in the AFC, and a rematch with the Panthers.

So there are still a lot of hurdles to clear.

But the Saints now have the longest winning streak in the NFL.

If you’re trying to beat New Orleans, what do you think you can exploit?

Consider Sunday’s game.

The Saints had their highest point total of the season. They had their most yards (487) in a regulation game and their highest time of possession (33:41) in a regulation game.

They broke their own NFL record by gaining 24 first downs in the first half.

Brees operated comfortably behind an offensive line that didn’t allow a sack for a second consecutive game and it has allowed an NFL-low of nine this season. His record-setting connections with Thomas, which came on 12 completions, didn’t prevent Brees from connecting with eight other receivers.

“He’s a special player,” Rams coach Sean McVay said. “You can see why he’s the all-time passing leader.”

The Saints defense held the top rushing team in the NFL to its second-lowest total of the season (93) and has not allowed 100 yards to any opponent during the winning streak.

The special teams turned in two of the biggest plays of the game when Craig Robertson ran down holder Johnny Hekker on a fake punt in the second quarter and Wil Lutz drilled a season-long 54-yard field goal, his 14th consecutive successful attempt.

Robertson’s play came on fourth and 4 after a fumble by Mark Ingram II. He caught Hekker at the sideline just short of the first-down marker, a spot that was upheld on replay.

“That was huge play because we had just had the turnover,” Saints coach Sean Payton said.

Had L.A. scored there it would have had its only lead of the game.

But it didn’t because the defense stiffened, and Robertson made his play.

“I am thankful for (the defense) having my back,” Ingram said. “At the end of the day that is what it is all about. We believe in each other. We have each other’s back no matter what.”

With Alvin Kamara and Ingram running the ball, Brees utilizing Kamara, Thomas and anyone else getting open while operating from a secure pocket, it’s extremely difficult for opponents to keep up with the Saints scoring pace.

The defense has some short-comings for sure, but a turnover here or there, such as Alex Anzalone’s interception, which set up a touchdown, or the occasional stop, such as three on the Rams’ final four possessions of the first half and a pair on their last two of the game, are going to be good enough.

And the special teams are solid throughout, not allowing an opening for opponents to overcome deficits in other areas.

Yes, there’s a long way to go.

But as of right now, the NFC Championship goes through New Orleans.

“There is no derailing this train,” Kamara said.

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Les East

Les East

CCS/Times-Picayune

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…

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