Cam Jordan chases perfection like he chases quarterbacks.
Someone asked the Saints star defensive end, whose team wadded up the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday and threw them into the recycling bin of the NFC South with a sound 30-10 thrashing, if New Orleans was close to it, at least on defense.
“Oh, no,” Jordan replied quickly. “So far.”
Candid and accurate, Mr. Jordan. But as the Saints reach the midway crest of their season with a 6-2 record, having strung together a dazzling half-dozen victories like Christmas lights on the tree, the question begs to be asked:
Just how good are these guys, and how far can they go?
On an NFL preview show on Fox this weekend, a list of prime NFC Super Bowl contenders were discussed at length. The Saints weren’t mentioned.
Yes, that's a slight considering New Orleans’ record, but it's also understandable. The script on the Saints has flipped so quickly, folks are struggling to size this team up.
The Saints are winning games and making history, the kind of history that has boded quite well for teams in the past. New Orleans is just the third team in the Super Bowl era to win six straight after starting 0-2. The other two, the 1993 Dallas Cowboys and 2007 New York Giants, both won the Super Bowl.
Sunday the Saints looked the part of a championship-contending team in an all-three-phases kind of win. There was Justin Hardee’s blocked punt and score to make it 9-0 with 6:31 left in the first quarter. There was the orthopedic surgeon precision of Drew Brees (22 of 27 passing for 263 yards and two touchdowns) melded with the now fearful duo of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, who combined for 145 yards rushing plus 86 yards and a touchdown receiving.
And there was the defense. True, the Bucs are a bottom feeder at 2-6, but they came in second in the NFL in passing offense and fourth in total yards. Tampa Bay was held to 200 yards, with starting quarterback Jameis Winston reduced to a taunting child from the sideline. After he was pulled at halftime with an aggravation of his right (throwing) shoulder injury, Winston drew Saints rookie cornerback sensation Marshon Lattimore into a confrontation that led to a blind-side hit on Lattimore by Bucs wide receiver Mike Evans.
Evans later found his proper maturity and apologized, though he should be fined. But it was emblematic of the fight — or lack of it — the Bucs had for their divisional rival. By 9:39 of the third quarter, when Brees made Tampa Bay pay for an O.J. Howard fumble with a 36-yard quick strike touchdown to Ted Ginn Jr., it was 30-3 and game over.
Brees, who has made the phrase “complementary football” his mantra this season, basically said this was the best embodiment of that so far.
“By no means was it perfect,” Brees said. “But all in all it was a good win.”
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Even misfortunes like the continued absence of injured cornerback Delvin Breaux and the ineffectiveness of wide receiver Willie Snead, the latter a staple of the Saints offense in recent years, haven't deterred this team. What a strange sensation this is after watching the Saints wander through the wilderness of three straight 7-9 campaigns, three years of rolling the rock up the break-even hill only to have it roll back down on them again.
Still, there were enough mistakes to give Saints coach Sean Payton plenty of material to focus his team as it prepares for a frosty road trip to nearly-as-surprising Buffalo.
Kamara lost a fumble, as did Snead, sent out in a reserve punt-return role only to muff a ball that set up the Bucs lonely 19-yard touchdown drive. Ginn also muffed a punt. Place-kicker Wil Lutz said he’d never been hit so hard as he was when the Bucs blocked his extra point try after Hardee’s touchdown, and even Brees missed a wide-open Ginn early for what could have easily been an 87-yard touchdown bomb.
But the Saints are in a good place mentally, and Payton couldn’t help but be pleased about that.
“When you start winning games, you start wanting to play for each other instead of playing for yourself,” said Payton, who won his 106th career game to surpass Vince Lombardi and Tom Flores, a pair of two-time Super Bowl-winning coaches. “I like that. We talked about that earlier this week.”
There’s little time for self-congratulations, though. Carolina, despite a sound 34-13 loss to New Orleans in September, stayed right on the Saints’ heels at 6-3 with a 20-17 win Sunday over 4-4 Atlanta. It’s still a ways off, but the Panthers’ Dec. 3 visit to the Superdome looms larger and larger.
Meanwhile, perfection remains an elusive target even if wins do not.
“We’re still striving to play our best game,” Brees said. “I don’t think we’ve achieved that yet.”
That doesn’t bode well for the teams the Saints will face in the second half.