By LES EAST
The New Orleans Saints signed former Pro Bowl wide receiver Dez Bryant last week to try and bolster one of the few relatively weak areas of the team.
Bryant, though, tore an Achilles at the end of his second practice and he won’t play for the Saints this season, if ever.
But it’s becoming more apparent with each passing week that this Saints team has very few weaknesses and none of those that it does have are anything close to fatal.
New Orleans strengthened its standing as the primary Super Bowl contender in the NFC by thrashing the Bengals, 51-14, on Sunday afternoon in Cincinnati.
It was a beating that takes place more commonly between elite college football teams and out-manned non-conference opponents than two NFL teams with winning records,
The Bengals, mind you, entered the game with a 5-3 record and coming off a bye week – which is supposed to be helpful – and couldn’t prevent the Saints from scoring on any of their nine possessions. None. Nada. Zilch.
New Orleans won its eighth straight game since a season-opening loss to Tampa Bay. It continued to roll through a mid-season grind that also featured wins against the Redskins, Ravens, Vikings and Rams and ends with a game against the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles next Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
It’s too early to tell whether last year’s Super Bowl champion will be facing this year’s eventual Super Bowl champion, but the Saints have not only ascended to the top spot in the NFL thanks to the head-to-head tie-breaker they claimed as they handed the Rams their first loss last week, but they appear to be getting better each week.
The offense already was scoring at the second-highest rate in the NFL before it scored its season-high against the Bengals and totaled 509 yards in compiling a margin that tied the largest ever by Cincinnati in a loss.
For the second consecutive week, the Saints were nearly perfect in the first half. A week after getting 24 first downs and scoring 35 points in the first half of a 45-35 victory, the Saints had 311 yards and 21 first downs in 40 plays during the first half.
New Orleans’ offensive pace slowed in the second half, primarily because the game was well in hand after Marcus William’s interception of Andy Dalton and 78-yard return set up the final of Drew Brees’ three touchdown passes and gave the Saints a 35-7 halftime cushion.
The Saints have achieved near-perfect offensive balance, not because they always gain similar amounts of yardage running and passing, but because opponents know they can be equally dangerous running or throwing in virtually any situation.
On Sunday, Brees completed 22 of 25 for 265 yards and had a rating of 150.4. Along the way he passed Brett Favre for second-most career touchdown passes and leaped 1 yard for another touchdown.
Mark Ingram II rushed for 104 yards on 13 catches and had a touchdown reception among his three catches for 58 yards. Michael Thomas had eight catches for 70 yards and two touchdowns. Alvin Kamara had a relatively quiet 102 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns.
Even rookie Keith Kirkwood, elevated from the practice roster at the 11th hour to replace Bryant, had two catches for 45 yards.
New Orleans likely will make another move this week to bring in a veteran receiver perhaps Brandon Marshall, to bolster depth at a position that sent two players – Ted Ginn Jr. and Cameron Meredith – to injured reserve before Bryant landed there Saturday.
The move to bring in Bryant came just two weeks after the Saints made a move to upgrade another key area when they made a trade with the Giants for cornerback Eli Apple.
The Apple move, like the Bryant move, and to a lesser degree the preseason trade with the Jets to bring in Teddy Bridgewater (who saw mop-up duty Sunday) in case anything happens to Brees, demonstrates New Orleans’ determination to maximize its chance of winning the Super Bowl while the 39-year-old Brees is still an elite player.
Brees is having one of the best seasons in a Hall of Fame career and might be headed to his first regular-season MVP Award even as the Saints become less dependent on him.
The offensive balance and an improving defense make it possible for Brees to pass for a mere 120 yards in a victory against a very good team as was the case in Minnesota two week ago.
Apple joined Williams in making a points-precipitating interception Sunday and the Saints now have five takeaways in the last three games. They had four sacks and continue to lead the NFL in run defense.
“We did a lot of things well today,” Saints coach Sean Payton said.
By the way, Brees wasn’t sacked as New Orleans’ NFL-low total stayed at nine and Brees had his eighth interception-free game in nine.
Teams can always get better and the Saints might continue to tweak the roster.
But this team looks just fine the way it is.