Before this NFL season began you may have read a prediction in this column forecasting a fourth consecutive 7-9 season for the New Orleans Saints. Seemed a pretty safe assumption. Where the Saints were concerned, mediocrity had become a staple.
Memories of the miracle of 2009 were becoming more and more faint.
Then, after the first two weeks of the season, 7-9 seemed overly optimistic. The Saints suffered back-to-back, double-digit losses at Minnesota and to the NFL Champion New England Patriots in the Superdome. What’s more, they would play three of their next four games away from the Superdome.
Well, don’t look now — and I know many of you are not looking — but the Saints have won four straight and have done so by an average margin of 16 points. They have looked very much like a playoff team — much improved defensively, with new, explosive weapons on offense and solid, for the most part, special teams play.
The Saints begin Week 8 of the NFL season in first place in the NFC South. The 4-2 Saints lead the 4-3 Carolina Panthers by a half game, followed by 3-3 Atlanta and 2-4 Tampa Bay. The Falcons’ slide from making it to the Super Bowl last season has been surprising. After impressively starting 3-0, the Dirty Birds have dropped three straight and must go on the road for their next two games.
The NFC South appears up for grabs. So why not the Saints?
Sean Payton would be the first to tell us: Don’t get ahead of yourselves. We are in a work in progress, and there are 10 games remaining in this 2017 marathon.
That’s a point well taken, but when one considers how the Saints began those last three 7-9 seasons, it surely spurs optimism. Because slow starts have been the Saints’ bugaboo.
In 2014, they began the season 2-4. In 2015, they began 0-3 and 1-4. In 2016, they were 0-3 and then 2-4. They improved as the season went along in all three 7-9 seasons. Similar improvement in 2017 would mean playoffs, if not a division championship.
Let’s look at the schedule. The first observation is that seven of the eight division games remain to be played and four of those are at home. (The Saints won at Carolina 34-13 in their only division matchup to date.) The Saints have first the Chicago Bears and then Tampa Bay coming to town the next two Sundays before they must leave the Crescent City again. And even then, four of the last eight games are at home. That’s all good news for Saints fans.
▪ Drew Brees, who will turn 39 in January, does not appear to have lost anything. He remains one of the most accurate passers these eyes have witnessed. He still has his fastball. He still has his legs, too. If you saw him leap over the line Sunday for the victory-clinching, fourth quarter touchdown, you know that. (That’s always what so many miss about Brees. That is, he is not only a special passer, he is a remarkable athlete. Before football, he was a junior tennis prodigy who competed successfully with the likes of Andy Roddick. He also starred on his high school baseball and basketball teams.) Eventually, even the greatest athletes lose a step or a few miles per hour on their fastball. It will happen to Brees. It hasn’t yet.
▪ Rookie running back Alvin Kamara, the third-round draft choice out of Tennessee, instantly has become one of pro football’s most dynamic all-purpose backs. For the Saints, he is what Darren Sproles once was. He has rushed for 215 yards, caught passes for 209 more. The best is yet to come. He has been so effective in tandem with Mark Ingram, the Saints traded future Hall of Famer Adrian Peterson.
▪ Perhaps most important of all, the Saints defense has added speed and coverage ability in the secondary and defensive end Cam Jordan is playing the best football of his life, already with five sacks and an interception in six games.
Again, we are 10 weeks from the finish line, but New Orleans has the look of a playoff team.
Rick Cleveland is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist. His email address is email@example.com. Follow him on twitter @rick_cleveland.