The New Orleans Saints are back in the driver’s seat.
Thanks to the Los Angeles Rams’ 15-6 loss to the Chicago Bears on Sunday night, the Saints (11-2) are again the No. 1 seed in the NFC. They had fallen to the No. 2 seed behind the Rams after losing to the Dallas Cowboys on Nov. 29.
Now New Orleans and Los Angeles have identical records and the Saints have the edge because of their 45-35 victory against the Rams. The bottom line is New Orleans, which clinched the NFC South championship by beating Tampa Bay, 28-14, on Sunday, will have home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs if it can at least match Los Angeles’ record during the final three weeks of the regular season.
The division title was a significant goal, but just the first one for a team with Super Bowl aspirations.
“All our goals are intact and all the goals that we set out for are right in front of us,” linebacker Damario Davis said Monday. “You can't take it for granted. Doing something like winning the division is hard to do in this league and so you appreciate that, but then you have to turn the page and get ready for what’s in front you.”
Next is New Orleans’ final road game – a visit to Carolina for Monday Night Football on Dec. 17. Then come back-to-back home games against the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Panthers.
Though the Saints outscored the Buccaneers, 25-0, in the second half, their performance featured similar short-comings to those that contributed to the loss to the Cowboys 10 days earlier – sub-par offensive line play, limited success in the running came and less efficiency than has been the norm for quarterback Drew Brees.
The offense finally got on track in the second half and the Saints were able to overcome a 14-3 deficit because the defense kept the Bucs within striking distance before its second-half shutout.
It was the fifth consecutive game in which New Orleans allowed 17 or fewer points.
“Certainly (the points allowed) has been important here down the stretch,” coach Sean Payton said. “You are hopefully improving each week, you are hopefully making the corrections and I think that they are playing with confidence. By no means is it perfect to put the tape on.
“There are a lot of things you want to clean up and correct, but I felt like especially in the game (Sunday) they did a great job in the second half. The first half wasn’t as good on third-down defense, but the second half was and helped allow us to get back in the game.”
And now they’re back on top in the race to be the NFC’s top seed.
--Mark Ingram II tied Deuce McAllister’s franchise record for career rushing touchdowns when he powered his way through a series of Bucs defenders during a 17-yard fourth-quarter touchdown run. It was the 49th rushing touchdown of Ingram’s career. “I think that was a good run to be able to tie Deuce,” Ingram said. “He had such a great career here and set the standard for running backs coming through New Orleans. He’s always been supportive of me and I appreciate him, so just to be able to have a run in that fashion to tie such a great record in this franchise, it's good.”
--WR Michael Thomas had his most productive game in a month as well as his second extremely productive game against the Bucs this season. Thomas caught 11 passes for 98 yards after not catching more than five passes in any of the last three games. In the season opener against Tampa he had 16 catches for 180 yards and one touchdown. Payton downplayed any significance to Thomas’ consistent success against the Bucs. “I think sometimes it’s coverage related with what they’re doing,” Payton said. “He made some plays for us on third down. There are some things he has to do better and clean up, but a lot of it has to do probably with the structure of what certain teams do defensively.”
--DE Cameron Jordan continues to play at a high level week in and week out. He provided consistent pressure on Jameis Winston and finished with two sacks. Jordan has 12 sacks this season, one fewer than the career-high he set last season.
--QB Drew Brees is being utilized more and more as a runner on the goal line. He leaped above the line of scrimmage for a 1-yard touchdown on fourth down Sunday to give the Saints their first lead of the day. It was Brees’ fourth rushing touchdown this season, a career high.