Saints taking on challenges and looking elite

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NEW ORLEANS – The middle of the season was supposed to be the most challenging part for the New Orleans Saints.

All eight road games were scheduled during an 12-game stretch. In the middle of that stretch came games against division leaders Washington, Baltimore, Minnesota and the Los Angeles Rams, who entered the game against the Saints undefeated.

Throw in Sunday’s game against the defending champion Philadelphia Eagles and you had a certified gauntlet.

But the games seem to be getting easier. New Orleans won its ninth straight after a season-opening loss to Tampa Bay by routing the Eagles, 48-7, in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome to complete an historic run.

That game came on the heels of a 51-14 win at Cincinnati, which was preceded by a 45-35 win against the Rams, producing a franchise-record 144 points in a three-game span. It’s the first time New Orleans has scored 45 points in three consecutive games.

“They were just in the way,” Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas said of the Eagles. “They were the next team up and we just had to do what we had to do. Regardless of who it is, we just had to come out there and play Saints football.”

They did exactly that in producing the largest margin of victory against a defending Super Bowl champion.

Drew Brees was almost perfect, completing 22 of 30 for 363 yards and four touchdowns as he had his ninth interception-free game out of 10. The biggest negative in his performance was that his completion percentage of 73 will lower his season-long completion percentage, which was over 78 entering Sunday’s game.

Thomas was relatively quiet – four catches, 92 yards, one touchdown – even as he became the first Saints payer to have three 1,000-yard receiving seasons to start his career.

“It was going to happen eventually, right?” Thomas said.

Rookie Tre’Quan Smith made the recent signing of former Pro Bowl receivers Dez Bryant, who suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in his second practice with his new team, and Brandon Marshall, who was inactive Sunday as he gets acclimated to his new team, seem unnecessary. He caught 10 passes for 157 yards and a touchdown.

“It was a huge night for him,” Brees said.

The Eagles, who were missing both starting cornerbacks because of injuries, devoted added attention to Thomas and running back Alvin Kamara, creating opportunities for others, especially Smith.

“Our offense is already explosive,” Kamara said, “but when you get guys you don’t expect to make plays make plays, it is fun.”

Mark Ingram II had his second consecutive 100-yard rushing day, finishing with 103 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries.

The defense matched the offense as it harassed Carson Wentz (three sacks) into three interceptions – two by reserve safety Chris Banjo and the first this season by cornerback Marshon Lattimore, last season’s NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.

With Brees putting together one of the most proficient and precise seasons ever by a quarterback, it’s nearly impossible for an opponent to keep up the scoring pace unless it takes the ball away more than it gives it away. But Brees is operating from a comfort zone created by the rushing tandem of Ingram and Kamara as well as an offensive line that has allowed an NFL-low nine sacks.

“It’s hard to get to him, number one,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said of Brees. “The ball is out of his hand so quickly. Obviously they’re explosive. They’re dynamic. They are playing with a lot of continuity right now and they’re playing in sync. Obviously it starts with Drew and the way he handles the team and the offense.”

Meanwhile the Saints defense is emerging behind the No. 1 rush defense and an increasing ability to produce turnovers.

On Sunday, in addition to the three takeaways, New Orleans allowed just 196 total yards, 58 rushing yards and limited Philadelphia (4-6) to 3 of 10 on third down conversions and 0 of 2 on fourth down conversions.

“It is just starting to come together,” defensive end Alex Okafor said. “A lot of it we have to give to our offense obviously because they make teams attack us differently, but we just take it upon ourselves to be as stout as possible and it is finally starting to show.”

The Saints held the ball for more than 37 minutes. It’s virtually impossible to keep up with New Orleans’ scoring pace if you don’t possess the ball for significantly longer than 22-something minutes.

“We just keep getting better and better each week,” Ingram said. “We’re just putting together complete games, offensively, defensively and on special teams. That is the main goal, be healthy and get our next game plan down and move on to the next one.”

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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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