Alvin Kamara runs in for a touchdown against the Bengals. (Frank Victores/AP)

The addition of wide receiver Dez Bryant by the New Orleans Saints made sense. Bryant needed a team, and the Saints needed a No. 2 wideout to complement top receiver Michael Thomas. As long as Bryant didn’t bring along the diva act from his days with the Dallas Cowboys— and surely, Coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees wouldn’t allow that to happen in New Orleans — he could have been an asset, it seemed.

There will be no way of knowing now how it would have turned out. Bryant, just signed by the Saints, saw his season end before it even started when he suffered a torn Achilles’ tendon on the final play of Friday’s practice. He never made his Saints debut and is eligible for free agency again this coming spring.

But it was no Bryant, no problem whatsoever Sunday for the Saints in Cincinnati. The offense just kept rolling, putting up 35 first-half points en route to a 51-14 triumph over the Bengals.

The Saints had 311 yards of total offense. Brees completed 18 of 20 passes for 214 yards and three touchdowns. Thomas had two touchdown catches, and tailback Alvin Kamara rushed for two touchdowns.

All of that was in the first half, after which the Saints had a 35-7 lead.

The Saints scored 28 points in the second quarter alone. The only on-field reminder of Bryant’s absence came when Saints running back Mark Ingram, Kamara and Thomas flashed Bryant’s trademark “X” sign with their arms after touchdowns.


Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas celebrates a touchdown Sunday. (John Grieshop/Getty Images)

The lone negative for the Saints was the shoulder injury suffered by left tackle Terron Armstead that knocked him from the game. The severity of the injury was not immediately clear.

The Saints are, quite simply, the NFL’s best team at the moment. They upped their record to 8-1. They’ve won eight straight games since a season-opening loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in New Orleans that seems even more perplexing in retrospect. On Sunday, they were coming off a victory at home over the Los Angeles Rams, the league’s final unbeaten team, yet they suffered no semblance of a letdown against the Bengals. The Cincinnati defense has struggled, and New Orleans took full advantage.

The Saints still might sign another unemployed veteran wide receiver, Brandon Marshall. Bryant’s injury leaves them without a complementary wideout. Maybe, just maybe, that will matter at some point.

But it hasn’t mattered so far. Brees might not win the league’s MVP award. But he is playing at an MVP level. Opposing defenses have had no answers for Thomas and Kamara.

Last season, the Saints had a great chance to get back to a Super Bowl for the first time since Payton and Brees led them to a title in the 2009 season. Their upgraded running game, with Ingram and Kamara, and a greatly improved defense took some of the burden off Brees and the passing game. But their 2017 season ended one step shy of the NFC title game with the miraculous playoff defeat at Minnesota.

This season, the Saints are right back at it. Fellow would-be NFC heavyweights like the Vikings and Philadelphia Eagles have had their struggles. The Saints have avoided such missteps.

The Rams are formidable. But the Saints have firmly established themselves as, right now, the NFC’s team to beat. If the conference’s path to the Super Bowl goes through New Orleans, it will be very difficult for any team to go there and beat the Saints in a postseason game.

The defense and running game are doing enough. Brees remains dependable and accurate and, in this 2018 season in which playing defense has been practically banned league-wide, next to unstoppable. The Saints seemingly can score as many points as it takes to win any game.

Which NFC team could beat them? Certainly the Rams would have a chance. The Carolina Panthers, with the familiarity of being an NFC South foe, will present problems when the two teams face each other twice in December. Perhaps the Vikings or Eagles will pull things together sufficiently to be a playoff threat.

But for now, at least, the Saints are solid favorites to be the NFC’s representative in the Super Bowl. They demonstrated that in emphatic fashion once more Sunday.