All but buried after an abysmal performance in Philadelphia left them 1-4, the New Orleans Saints have looked very much alive the past two weeks.
If they keep trending in the right direction as the schedule lightens, their playoff hopes could be resurrected, too, although they were not willing to go there Monday.
“The best thing for us since we got put in the hole is to kind of put our head down and take it step by step and game by game,” safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “At 3-4, we don’t even need to be thinking about playoffs. We need to be thinking about the New York Giants this weekend.”
New York, which improved to 4-3 by beating injury-ridden Dallas 27-20 on Sunday (despite getting giving up 233 rushing yards while getting outgained 460-289), is the only team above. 500 New Orleans will face in November. After getting the Giants in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the Saints finish out the month at home against Tennessee (1-5) and at Washington (3-4) and Houston (2-5).
The NFC South title appears out of reach with Carolina yet to lose, but the wild-card race may be open to all comers. Only six NFC teams have winning records, and one of them, Minnesota (4-2), has scored the sixth-fewest points in the league.
“It’s a funky year so far,” center Max Unger said. “We have a lot of undefeated teams and a lot of teams at or below .500. It’s a tight race, but at the same time, you don’t really pay much attention to it. Our goal is to win games, and if we do that, obviously our goals will be there at the end of the season.”
The Saints did plenty of winning things while beating Indianapolis 27-21 on Sunday.
They broke up 12 of Colts quarterback Andrew Luck’s passes, the most by any team in Week 7 and easily the Saints’ most this year.
“It was a point of emphasis this week,” coach Sean Payton said. “Andrew does a very good job of climbing that pocket. He hangs in there, and when you’re playing certain zone coverages, you can predict the ball is going to go to certain spots. If you know the flight path, that can help.”
Every unit played a hand in the deflections. Defensive end Cameron Jordan batted down two throws. Linebacker Stephone Anthony tipped a pass to himself for an interception. Defensive backs Devon Breaux (three breakups) and Kyle Wilson (two) disrupted Luck, too.
It was a stark contrast to earlier in the year, when the Saints averaged three breakups in consecutive games against Tampa Bay, Carolina and Dallas.
“You can credit that to the pressure we were getting by the defensive line,” Vaccaro said. “Those guys were getting their hands up also. You can credit the coverage being in position to make the plays. I hope we can continue to keep playing like we’ve been playing.”
New Orleans rushed for a season-high 183 yards, its best total since Oct. 26, 2014, when it gained 193 against Green Bay. The Saints had been held to fewer than 100 yards on the ground in four of their first six games and eight of their past 10 dating to last season, with a high of 104 against Tampa Bay a month ago.
Mark Ingram had 143 yards on 14 carries, while Khiry Robinson rushed for two touchdowns.
“We had a good plan going in,” Unger said. “They are 3-4 style defense, and we had a good variety of runs and just executed those outside and inside. We were able to not run the same thing over and over, and we kept them off guard. We just have to let this game be the standard as far as our ability to run the ball.”
The list of positives did not stop there. The Saints have forced six turnovers in the past two weeks against Atlanta and Indianapolis while coughing up the ball only once. They also started fast both times, jumping out to a 24-7 lead on the Falcons and 27-0 on the Colts.
“We are playing a lot looser,” Unger said. “We know the talent’s there, and it’s just our ability to go out and execute the game plan with total confidence. We’re starting to stack the wins together. It’s fun when that happens.”