METAIRIE — Drew Brees led a decisive fourth-quarter scoring drive. Tracy Porter made a game-sealing interception. A fourth-straight win helped New Orleans solidify its NFC South Division lead.
For linebacker Scott Shanle, the Saints’ latest win over Detroit on Sunday night, as well as the way they’ve played since the second half of the 2011 season began, has been reminiscent of New Orleans’ Super Bowl run two seasons ago.
“For the guys who were here in 2009, after last night’s game and the way we’ve played the last four weeks, there’s a little bit of that feeling like we’ve kind of flipped that switch and we’ve kind of hit that next gear,” Shanle said Monday. “Now it’s up to us to see if we can maintain that level.”
While unbeaten Green Bay remains the favorite in the NFC, and surprising San Francisco is making headlines with its resurgence, the Saints are working their way back into the conversation about the top Super Bowl contenders in the NFL.
Their win streak has improved their record to 9-3, giving them a two-game lead in their division and placing them one game behind the 49ers for the second overall playoff seed in the conference.
“We feel like we’re one of the elite teams,” receiver Lance Moore said. “Obviously, we have the third-best record in the NFC, but we can’t worry about what Green Bay’s doing. We can’t worry about what San Francisco’s doing. We have to worry about what we’re doing.”
Offensively, the Saints are doing just about everything right. They are averaging a league-leading 448.7 yards per game, putting them on a pace to finish with a single-season league-record 7,179 yards from scrimmage.
Brees is averaging a league-leading 336 yards passing, and in the process has become the first quarterback to eclipse 4,000 yards passing in a season’s first 12 games. If he keeps it up, he’ll easily break Dan Marino’s 1984 single-season record of 5,084 yards passing.
The Saints don’t have any individual running backs with stunning statistics, but collectively, Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram have provided New Orleans with the No. 8 ground attack in the league. They are also all healthy, making it tough for Chris Ivory, the Saints’ leading rusher in 2010, to crack the lineup.
Defensively, the Saints are giving up a lot of ground, ranking 27th with 378.8 yards allowed per game. Yet they are not terribly concerned about that because they’ve made enough key stops to make the point production of their prolific offense stand up.
“That’s really what we did in 2009, is we played complementary football,” Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “Defensively, the stats weren’t always great in 2009, but we did what we needed to do to win, and I think we’re doing the same thing now.
“The way our offense is playing, we’re going to get a lot of yardage put on us defensively just because teams are going to try to catch up and throw the ball,” Jenkins continued. “But we made the plays that we needed to keep points off the board and let our offense do what they do.”
When the Saints were upset in St. Louis in late October, falling to 5-3 at the halfway point of the season, coach Sean Payton told his team they would learn a lot about themselves during their next four games, starting with divisional rivals Tampa Bay and Atlanta, followed by pivotal NFC matchups against the New York Giants and the Lions.
“That was the goal, to see where we stacked up, where we measured. I like the way we responded to that,” Payton said. “We’ve still got 25 percent or a quarter of the season left.”
Now the Saints head to Tennessee this weekend to start a two-game road swing, and Payton is trying to keep his players grounded by reminding them of the imperfections in their performances during an otherwise impressive 4-0 surge.
Payton was not pleased with botched coverages that allowed long passing plays by the Lions and Giants. He was frustrated by the offense’s inability to put away a game at Atlanta that the Saints had to pull out in overtime after blowing a 10-point, fourth-quarter lead. Payton also has some questions about the kick and punt return games that feature the speedy Sproles.
“We’ve got one of the better returners in the NFL and we’re having trouble getting him some yardage,” Payton said.
“We’ve gotten on a run here and won some football games. And yet, we’ve won despite not being consistent in some areas,” Payton continued. “I do think that we’re playing with confidence. ... We’ll have a chance here to see how this team stacks up versus not only last year’s team, but teams prior.”