ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — It was easy to dismiss the New Orleans Saints two games into this 2017 NFL season. They had a record of 0-2, and their defense looked atrocious. It was not at all difficult to envision a fourth straight 7-9 season — or worse — ending with questions about whether the magic had run out for quarterback Drew Brees and Coach Sean Payton, and if the time to move on and start over had arrived.
That time indeed will come at some point. But it does not appear that it will arrive this season or immediately afterward. That can be credited in large part to a greatly improved defense and running game that could help Payton and Brees get back to the Super Bowl.
It was that running game and that defense that were the focal points here Sunday as the Saints gave a dominant performance in beating the Buffalo Bills, 47-10.
“When you look at our productivity in the running game, certainly the way the defense is playing and just how complementary we’ve been, I think a lot of things came together today,” Brees said. “We executed very well today. … All in all, I’d say it was a pretty good day.”
It was a lifetime ago, in NFL terms, that Brees and Payton led the Saints to a Super Bowl triumph after the 2009 season and earned a lifetime of adulation for their roles in the post-Hurricane Katrina restoration of pride and hope in New Orleans. The Saints have not experienced as much prosperity since then. Payton was suspended for the 2012 season for his role in the Bountygate scandal. He returned to lead the Saints to an 11-victory season in 2013, but that was followed by three straight seven-win disappointments in 2014, ’15 and ’16.
Brees has remained among the league’s most prolific passers, and the Saints’ offense has remained at or near the top of the league rankings. But the defense had been an annual eyesore, and there was plenty of room to wonder whether Brees’s time in New Orleans was winding down without another dose of postseason glory in store. His contract expires after this season, making him eligible for unrestricted free agency. A clause in his contract reportedly prevents him from being franchise-tagged by the Saints. He turns 39 in January, and there are no guarantees that he will be in New Orleans next season and beyond.
But if the Saints continue to play like this, there is no reason to want to start anew. Brees and Payton have toned down the passing game a bit this season. Brees possesses five of the nine 5,000-yard passing seasons in NFL history. (Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Dan Marino and Matthew Stafford have one each.) But Brees is on pace to throw for “only” 4,263 yards this season after his modest 184-yard passing performance Sunday.
It is resulting in a more balanced, better version of the Saints. They can run the ball effectively with Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, who each topped 100 rushing yards Sunday. The Saints rushed for 298 yards and a team-record six touchdowns, including three by Ingram and one by Brees on a scramble.
“I feel like we’re actually committing to it as a coaching staff [and] everybody is buying in as players,” Ingram said. “We know that it benefits our team offensively, defensively to be able to run the ball effectively. So I think everybody is just buying into it. Everybody sees the benefits of it when we can be efficient and successful running the ball. We’ve just got to keep going. We’ve got to keep improving at it.”
And they can play some defense. The Saints began Sunday tied for ninth in the NFL in scoring defense and had no problems with the Bills.
“We’re a young defense,” defensive end Cameron Jordan said. “This is unlike any other locker room I’ve been a part of. We’ve got probably the youngest defense in the league — at least one of them. It’s going to take more than just four preseason games to jell us together. Was I hoping that it’d happen that first game? Of course. Did I think it would happen the second game? I was hoping so. … We bounced back against a real strong in-division opponent [in a Week 3 victory at Carolina], and that helps build confidence. Confidence is key.”
Payton acknowledged the strides being taken by his defense.
“Hopefully we’re playing a more complementary game,” he said. “I know we’re playing the run better. Typically you want confidence, and you want to play with confidence. I say this all the time: We’ve had some performances after those two weeks, the Carolina game and the game over in London [a shutout win over the Miami Dolphins] really, I think, allowed us to gain some confidence. We played well. We took the ball away defensively. And I think, like anything else, you have to demonstrate it in performance. … Pointing to one specific game would be difficult. But certainly it’s begun to happen.”
Few saw this coming, especially after the 0-2 beginning. But Brees said he never lost faith that it was possible.
“Did I think we’d rattle off seven in a row? I’m not sure,” Brees said. “But I think I knew we were much closer than people gave us credit for. I knew that the tide would turn at some point. You hoped it would be sooner than later. You just need a little bit of validation for the process and for all the hard work and dedication that we all had put in and the expectation level that we had for this season.
“Listen, we played two really good teams to start the season, at Minnesota and then New England. I think we felt like, if we just kept plugging away, we were going to break the seal at some point, and then look out. And sure enough, that’s what’s happened. … It’s still not perfect. There’s still things that we can clean up. But when you walk away from a victory like today … to win the way that we did certainly gives us a ton of confidence moving forward.”
The Philadelphia Eagles, who were idle Sunday, have been the NFC’s best team this season. They are the conference’s Super Bowl favorite. But the Saints are well positioned among the NFC teams jockeying to be the primary challenger to the Eagles. That group includes the Los Angeles Rams, the Minnesota Vikings, the Panthers and perhaps the Dallas Cowboys and Seattle Seahawks. The Saints made a convincing case Sunday that they just might be the best of that group.
“We’re nine games in,” Payton said. “No one is sending messages. We’re just trying to play good football. Any time you win on the road, it’s a plus, and I think this is a tough place to play on the road. I think more importantly you’re constantly trying to send messages to your own team, your own players. They’ve responded well.”
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