Saints sweep Falcons, ascend to new planes of excellence

Even without Brees, the Saints are very, very good

The Saints’ 21-16 win against the Falcons Sunday makes them 9-0 over the last nine weeks, 2-0 against the Falcons this season and, incredibly, 8-0 without Drew Brees over the last two seasons.

The Saints are deep. They’re deeper than deep. They’re deeper than a hefty slice of Doberge cake.

That’s right; I’ve resorted to comparing the team to a New Orleans-born dessert because I’m running out of ways to describe them. The Saints win a workman-like fashion. There are a few chunk plays here and there, but rarely do they blow the top off the defense. The team’s most spectacular play of the year – Alvin Kamara’s inhuman 52-yard screen pass TD – came in a loss to the Green Bay Packers.

First (seed) world problems, amirite?

With the Saints still in first place in the NFC playoff race (and officially in the postseason, thanks to the Bears’ loss Sunday), the franchise is in uncharted waters. The team has now won double-digit games for four consecutive seasons, a first. They’ve made the playoffs four straight seasons, also a first. Leading up to the Falcons game, the defense ranked first overall in yards allowed, which is, again, a first for the organization.  Taysom Hill has 362 rushing yards this season, a team record for quarterbacks.

The team has also proven, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that it can withstand a multitude of injuries to its most important players and still be the most complete team in football. Against the Falcons, the Saints were without Brees, left tackle Terron Armstead, defensive end Marcus Davenport, and cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Patrick Robinson. Robinson started the game in place of Jenkins, but left with a leg injury in the first quarter.

As recently as 2018, any one of these injuries might have been a death sentence. No left tackle? Brees is the victim of a crippling sack-fumble. Missing two cornerbacks and a starter on the defensive line? The defense gets shredded for 500 yards. No Brees at all? Before last season, that was every Saints fan’s worst nightmare. It was unimaginable.

On Sunday, all of these things happened at once, and the Saints still won. Not only did they win, but they dominated for much of the game before falling asleep at the wheel late in the fourth quarter. Even that mini-collapse wasn’t enough to derail an otherwise good performance by the defense – the Saints still held the Falcons to 16 points and they made the stop they needed to on the final play, as Matt Ryan’s Hail Mary careened off several defenders’ hands and fell to the turf as time expired.

“I feel like it’s the culture that we’ve built since I’ve gotten here. We’ve slowly built it. And we demand it, we demand it now. We demand success, we demand excellence, we come into it, home or away, we’re coming to win games, we’re not just coming here to play the team we’re going against,” receiver Michael Thomas said after the game.  “As long as we keep that mindset, with the coaches that we have, and the skillset we have on both offense, defense and special teams, we’re a very dominant team and everyone knows that.”

Isn’t that nice to hear? I will never tire of quotes about the team’s winning culture. It’s so much better than defenders wondering why communication broke down in a key moment as they stare into the abyss. It certainly beats the viral tirades of head coaches past (though, those certainly have their place in Saints lore). This is exactly the kind of game the Saints would have lost prior to Sean Payton’s hiring, or in the lean years from 2014-2016, when the Saints couldn’t escape the purgatory of 7-9. 

Now, the concerns surrounding the team after the losses to the Packers and the Raiders in September seem like they happened in a different season.  The Saints are very, very good, despite what your relatives say on the family holiday Zoom meeting, because they’re still not over a loss from 40 years ago.

In this flaming dog turd of a year, it’s a tremendous pleasure to see that the Saints can consistently win in new and adventurous ways. This week it was despite an inopportune turnover by Taysom Hill on a drive that could have given the Saints at least a 15-point lead in the fourth quarter.

In the days leading up to next week’s game against the hapless Eagles (3-8-1), questions will arise as to who will start at quarterback. Brees will be eligible to return from injured reserve and if he feels healthy enough to play, he will surely lobby to take back the reigns.

Hill has earned the right to keep the job for as long as it takes Brees to be completely healthy. He is not the virtuoso that Brees is, and probably never will be. His stats against the Broncos were ugly, but you can throw away that game tape because of the extremely bizarre circumstances surrounding Denver’s QB situation. Hill is 3-0 and has scored 6 total touchdowns in that stretch. 

Once is happenstance.  Twice is a coincidence.  Three times is a pattern.  Hill has proven capable of winning at the NFL level, and I say let ride until Brees is completely healed.

“At the end of the day, I’m happy that we’ve gotten three wins. That’s the statistic that I care most about,” Hill said after his second victory against the Falcons.

With Aaron Rodgers and the Packers – who own the head-to-head tiebreaker against the Saints – eviscerating opponents at a torrid pace, winning is the only stat that’s going to matter over the last four weeks of the season. 

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