In two short weeks, the New Orleans Saints emphatically have thrust themselves back into the Super Bowl LIV conversation with season-saving wins over the Seattle Seahawks in the Pacific Northwest and the Dallas Cowboys at home.
And they have done it without injured quarterback Drew Brees.
And while I’m surprised by the team’s recent success with backup Teddy Bridgewater under center, particularly their wire-to-wire win at Seattle in Week 3, I am not shocked.
Nor should anyone else be shocked.
There is a reason why many NFL savvy media observers — and national bookmakers — made the Black and Gold one of the front-runners to play for the Lombardi Trophy in Miami on the first Sunday of February.
Yes, Brees figured prominently in the overall evaluation but it goes much deeper than No. 9.
Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis and Coach Sean Payton have assembled one of the league’s deepest rosters, rich in talent in all three phases, certainly beginning with the quarterback position but not ending there.
As I began to consider the relevance of the Saints’ gritty 12-10 victory Sunday night over the Cowboys inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, my initial thought was they won in spite of Bridgewater largely because they had to settle for four Wil Lutz field goals on as many trips inside the red zone.
But that wouldn’t be totally accurate. He did his job; he managed the game and did not lose it, though a costly sack inside the final two minutes took the Saints out of field-goal range and prevented them from extending a 12-10 lead.
This is not about Bridgewater. The Saints beat Dallas because of a stellar defensive performance on all levels and a brilliant game plan produced by Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen. The ‘‘Allen Wrenches’‘ screwed down on the Cowboys’ celebrated Triplets — quarterback Dak Prescott, running back Ezekiel Elliott and wide receiver Amari Cooper — and essentially rendered them moot.
The Saints forced three turnovers and limited the Cowboys to 10 points and 257 total yards, both well below their season averages of 32.4 ppg and 481.4 ypg.
Elliott was held to 35 yards rushing on 18 carries. Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore shadowed Cooper for much of the game, resulting in five catches for 48 yards. And Prescott never found his comfort zone, finishing with a pedestrian 73.2 passer rating.
Chew on his nugget: Entering Week 4, the Cowboys were fifth in the NFL with 16 plays of 20 yards or more with 13 coming through the air. The Saints defense had allowed 19 plays of 20 yards or more, including 14 through the air, which was 31st in the league.
By comparison, the Cowboys had two pass plays unaided by penalties beyond 20 yards Sunday night, one coming in the final minute that caused some concern for Who Dat Nation. But Saints safety Marcus Williams sealed the deal with a last-play INT on a desperation heave by Prescott inside the Saints 15.
So now it’s on to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at noon Sunday in the Superdome. The Bucs (2-2) traveled West and put a 55-40 whuppin’ on the LA Rams, the same team that derailed the Saints 27-9 and sidelined Brees in Week 2 at Memorial Coliseum.
I’ve always admired Brees for his ability to elevate everyone’s performance around him, particularly on offense. That’s why he is paid the big bucks. That’s why he’s in the G.O.A.T conversation. With No. 9 out of the picture, each player has taken it upon himself to elevate his game, and it shows.
The past two games have been ugly. But after beating Seattle and Dallas, the Saints are sitting pretty at 3-1.