Despite having been considered one of the best teams in the entire NFL for most of this season, there are some who believe the New Orleans Saints aren’t nearly as good as their (12-2) record indicates, mostly due to their notable struggles on offense in the last three games. But are those struggles a sign of weakness for a team that’s won 12 of their last 13 games and has the best record in the NFL this year? Or, is it simply due to a combination of factors which include the expected fatigue that comes with playing on the road for three straight weeks?
Winning games in the NFL isn’t always easy, especially when every other team in the League is gunning for you because you’re the perceived “top dog.”
Yet the Saints, from week-to-week, manage to win games in a variety of ways. They don’t necessarily need to score 50 points every single week.
Yet the current narrative among observers in the mainstream media suggests that the Saints haven’t quite been themselves since their 13-10 loss at Dallas a few weeks ago, when they were shut down by the aggressive (8-6) Cowboys’ defense and its brilliantly-devised game plan that constantly pressured quarterback Drew Brees and appeared to completely disrupt his timing and rhythm. Last week at (5-9) Tampa Bay it was more of the same, as the Saints needed a blocked punt from Special Teams ace and jack-of-all-trades Taysom Hill midway through the 3rd quarter to finally snap out of their funk and rally from a 14-3 deficit to take home a hard-fought 28-14 victory.
Rough stretch for Saints' offense. They might need a Taysom Hill blocked punt to wake them up again this week.
— Mike Triplett (@MikeTriplett) December 18, 2018
Then the other night on Monday Night Football against a desperate (6-8) Panthers team, the Saints couldn’t put away their NFC South Division rivals despite being the beneficiary of a handful of golden opportunities.
New Orleans was forced to punt four times against the Panthers, and they committed two turnovers while going 4-out of-13 on third down. Brees finished with a 69.1 passer rating; his lowest in a game since 2016.
It goes without saying that the Saints’ offense has not been playing anywhere near the same level that it had been during their recent 10-game winning streak. During that, the Saints were averaging over 37 points per game and were considered an offensive juggernaut. In these last three games, however, the Saints offense hasn’t looked anything remotely like that; averaging only 16.7 points in that span.
Brees is picked! The Panthers get the ball back with a chance to put some more points on the board!
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) December 18, 2018
“There were some not-very-smart errors on our part,” Brees said to reporters after the Saints’ narrow 12-9 victory. “We had a couple personal fouls that can’t happen, 15 yards after big plays. We had some dropped balls. We had some bad throws by me. We didn’t take advantage of the opportunities that presented themselves.”
While there’s certainly a variety of reasons (injuries along their offensive line, or lack of a complimentary wide receiver, for example) to go around, the simplest explanation might just be that the Saints aren’t perfect. Sometimes it’s a lack of execution, and other times it might be a blown assignment or a missed tackle. But more often than not, they still manage to do the little things that are required fundamentally to win football games.
— Brian Baldinger (@BaldyNFL) December 18, 2018
It’s what the older generation refers to as winning “by any means necessary.” And it’s what the younger generation refers to as “stacking W’s.“
But most importantly: the Saints don’t often beat themselves.
“I think it makes us look at ourselves and say we can’t just roll a helmet on the field and be a great offense,” offensive right guard Larry Warford said to New Orleans Advocate beat writer Nick Underhill. “I think that was the story of the game for the offense. Too many penalties, too many mental mistakes. Just simple things. Fundamentals. We’re a great offense, and we know better than that.”
Against the Panthers, there were several factors at play.
They were facing a divisional rival at their home stadium in Pro Football’s toughest division, the NFC South. Not to mention a team playing with desperation, one that was trying to avoid their own elimination from Playoff contention. As a result, the Saints essentially adapted to the Panthers’ style of play. And Carolina’s style normally is an at-times conservative, hard-nosed approach typically reflective of their head coach, Ron Rivera. That’s not to say the Panthers are afraid to mix it up a bit creatively, but they don’t play with anywhere near the wide-open approach that the Saints do.
Yet for the most part, New Orleans seemed to have the upper hand. They beat the Panthers in time of possession by nearly ten minutes (35:09 to 24:51) and outgained them in total yardage by nearly 100 yards (346 to 247); but because of the opportunities that they failed to take advantage of, only had six points to show for it until the 4th quarter.
Kamara finds the edge for SIX!
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) December 18, 2018
Nevertheless, the narrative still persists this morning that there’s something wrong about a football team with the resiliency to continually win games, a feat they’ve now accomplished successfully 12 out of 14 times this season with two games still remaining.
One thing to keep in mind is that credit should be given to all of them — the Cowboys, Buccaneers, and the Panthers — for refusing to allow themselves to get steamrolled as so many of the other teams had during the Saints’ 10-game winning streak. The Cowboys were the first team to finally have some success at slowing down the Saints offense, and now every team from here on out will likely look to utilize the same game plan.
However the Saints, despite all of that, still managed to win two out of those three games and moved one step closer to their goal of earning the #1 seed and home-field advantage in the Playoffs.
#Saints stat that doesn't need to get lost in the shuffle:
They went 7-1 on the road this year. Only 3 games were in a dome. They've proven they can win anywhere, and while they likely get to play at home the rest of the way, good teams play well everywhere.
— Deuce Windham (@RevDeuceWindham) December 18, 2018
Now the Black and Gold will finally return home to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, where they seem to play with a lot more intensity and focus than they do on the road. And they return to their comfort zone inside of a building they might not actually have to leave again until the Super Bowl. The same building that the Saints have never lost (5-0) a Playoff game ever in during the Sean Payton-Drew Brees Era.
Will we see the Saints team from earlier in the season that was scoring nearly 40 points per contest? Or this more recent version that has everyone ready to jump off the proverbial cliff? Whichever Saints team shows up, you can count on this much: they will do whatever it takes, to get themselves one step closer to their ultimate goal of winning the Super Bowl.
Perhaps there’s nothing really wrong with the Saints at all — except “stacking W’s.”
Barry Hirstius is a semi-retired journalist, who has worked as a sports editor and columnist. Barry is a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the Saints while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium. He is the proud Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity. You can view the rest of his Saints coverage and several feature articles here.