Everyone focuses on the Los Angeles Rams, but the New Orleans Saints are making the NFC intriguing with a prolific offense and powerful defense.
The Rams are the best team in football, but the footsteps are getting louder.
In Baltimore, it was the Saints finding a way to beat the Ravens, 24-23, thanks to a terrific comeback followed by a Ravens touchdown, and then Justin Tucker’s first-career missed extra point. In the end, none of the details matter. The result is New Orleans sitting at 5-1, atop the NFC South and in the driver’s seat for both a first-round bye in the playoffs and to challenge Los Angeles for home-field throughout.
New Orleans might have the best offense in football, one that can grind it out on the ground with Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram, and darken the skies with footballs thanks to Drew Brees and Michael Thomas. While Kansas City and Los Angeles would argue that for that title, Sean Payton remains one of the elite offensive minds in the game, putting the Saints into position to win a game any way an opponent wants to play.
Case in point? Sunday.
The Ravens played a smash-mouth style that forced New Orleans to turn the ball over within the Baltimore 5-yard line early. Brees went for less than 100 passing yards into the third quarter, and defensive coordinator Wink Martindale was dialing up pressures on the edges and up the A-gap.
Ultimately, though, Brees and Payton figured it out. By the fourth quarter, New Orleans had the look of an offense that wouldn’t be stopped, and it wasn’t. Three drives turned into 17 points, proving just enough to win in one of the league’s toughest venues. Baltimore came into the night having not allowed a second-half touchdown all season, becoming the first team since the 1934 Detroit Lions to go that far into a campaign without doing so.
Against the Saints, the top-ranked Baltimore defense couldn’t stand up when it needed to most, something that ought to scare the hell out of any team coming up on the schedule.
As for the defense, it’s a unit that can make plays at all three levels. Cameron Jordan is a top-end pass rusher, while Marshon Lattimore is an All-Pro in waiting. Factor in an athletic group of linebackers, and the Saints can get pressure without blitzing, cover well enough on the back end and run to the ball in droves.
Since being ambushed on opening day by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Saints have allowed 24 points only once. New Orleans wasn’t in its best form on Sunday while allowing the potential game-tying touchdown late, but the defense did its job for much of the day. Alex Collins, one of the most physical runners in football, notched a paltry 38 yards on 11 carries.
Undoubtedly, the Rams are the league’s top squad through seven weeks. Los Angeles is undefeated and has the best point differential at +107, while the Saints check in fourth behind Kansas City and Baltimore at +41.
Soon enough, New Orleans will have its chance to prove it’s not only a contender, but a favorite. The Saints play the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday Night Football this weekend before coming home to host the Rams in front of what promises to be a raucous Superdome crowd. Should New Orleans handle business in Minnesota — the Saints open as 2.5-point underdogs — it would be playing for control of the conference as the calendar turns to November.
The season remains long, but time is always short in the NFL sprint. New Orleans has positioned itself well and now gets into the meat of its schedule, hoping to show why it could be the best team nobody seems to talk about.
Top 10 tortured fanbases
1. Cleveland Browns
2. Buffalo Bills
3. Minnesota Vikings
4. Kansas City Chiefs
5. Detroit Lions
6. New York Jets
7. Los Angeles Chargers
8. Atlanta Falcons
9. Cincinnati Bengals
10. Arizona Cardinals
The Jacksonville Jaguars are coming apart at the seams. More on that below, but that’s quite the quote.
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Julio Jones has 44 catches for 708 yards this season. He’s still somehow waiting for his first touchdown of 2018.
Info learned this week
1. Playoff picture beginning to take shape with Week 7 results
Things are beginning to come into focus in the NFL season. The key word? Beginning.
There are still 10 weeks before we know the 12 playoff participants, but some of the results on Sunday are giving us an idea of who could be left standing.
The New England Patriots stared down the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field in a high-scoring affair, with the road team winning 38-31. The Bears are now 3-3 and floundering in the NFC North, tied with the Detroit Lions who kept their season alive with a win over the Miami Dolphins on South Beach. As for Miami, the 4-3 Dolphins are very much alive in the wild card conversation, but the AFC East is, not shockingly, a pipe dream.
In San Francisco, the Rams remained the only undefeated team in the NFL, beating the 49ers to keep their hold on home-field advantage. Los Angeles will be tested over the next two weeks, hosting the Green Bay Packers before visiting the Saints, who moved to 5-1 on the campaign with a BLANK against the Baltimore Ravens.
Finally, the Chiefs and Bengals were flexed to Sunday night but only Kansas City got the memo. Andy Reid’s team rolled to a 45-10 win, moving to 6-1 and staying atop both the division and conference while the Bengals fell to 4-3, tied with Baltimore and percentage points behind the Steelers in the AFC North.
2. Bears need more from Mitchell Trubisky to contend
Chicago is improving this season behind a quality defense and a new, bright head coach in Matt Nagy. Unfortunately, the quarterback remains an issue. Mitchell Trubisky’s box score in his 38-31 loss to the Patriots shows 330 yards, but the reality was a litany of missed deep shots, a pair of interceptions and indecision in the pocket.
Let’s be clear about one thing; Trubisky isn’t being labeled a bust in this space. He’s a second-year guy in a new offense, and he’s working with a trio of new weapons in Taylor Gabriel, Trey Burton and Allen Robinson. Still, Chicago has to get more form Trubisky, who vacillates from playing great to looking like a backup.
Over the next three weeks, the Bears host the Jets before taking a trip to Buffalo and then returning for a date with the Lions. Chicago has a chance to reach 6-3, and Trubisky has to make sure the Bears get there with quick decisions and accurate passing.
3. Cooper, Thomas reportedly available on market
If your team needs a wide receiver, there’s reportedly help available on the trade market. Reports have emerged that say the Denver Broncos are willing to move on from Demaryius Thomas, while the Oakland Raiders are listening to offers on Amari Cooper, although he isn’t expected to come cheap.
Thomas would likely be dealt on a discount considering he’s still owed $17.53 million next season. A team could release Thomas and only pay the remaining balance for 2018, but would then be hit with a $3 million cap charge next year. With only 372 receiving yards and three scores this season, his salary clearly outweighs his performance.
As for Cooper, the Raiders are hoping to get a legitimate haul for the 24-year-old, but that’s tricky in its own right. The former first-round pick hasn’t been a quality player since notching 1,153 yards in 2016 and is now rebounding from a concussion. Oakland surely wants a first-round choice and maybe would settle for a second and change, but that’s a big ask for a player who needs a contract extension in the near future.
The Dallas Cowboys have been linked to Cooper, a move that would make sense considering their depth chart on the outside.
Finally, the Arizona Cardinals are open for business and then some after being creamed 45-10 by the Broncos on Thursday night. Arizona is reportedly open to dealing Haasan Reddick and Deone Bucannon, and while owner Michael Bidwell says Patrick Peterson isn’t available, contenders should be inquiring about what the price would be to change that tune.
4. Titans deserve loss after horrid call at game’s conclusion
Trailing 20-19 with 31 seconds remaining, the Tennessee Titans decided to attempt a two-point conversation. Incredibly, despite personnel geared toward power running and basically anything but creative passing, Tennessee threw the ball. Incomplete. But a flag! Defensive holding and the ball on the Chargers’ 1-yard line.
The Titans threw the ball again from an empty set. It was predictably incomplete. Game over.
While you won’t find blame for head coach Mike Vrabel in his decision to go for the win, the play call was absurd. Marcus Mariota had been his typically average self all afternoon, the Chargers have a terrific secondary and Tennessee has lousy receivers. Conversely, the Titans can run the ball quite well and Los Angeles is weak inside.
Somehow, some way, for reasons nobody understands, the Titans threw the ball, and now find themselves 3-4.
In the NFL, it’s often about waiting for the other team to lose and avoiding that moment yourself.
5. Panthers, Buccaneers earn wild wins
The Carolina Panthers pulled off an all-time comeback on Sunday, while the Tampa Bay Buccaneers did everything they could to lose late against Cleveland before winning in unbelievable fashion.
Carolina fell behind 17-0 against the Eagles on the road before staging a dramatic fourth-quarter rally, one that saw Cam Newton throw a pair of touchdowns including the game-winner to Greg Olsen in the final two minutes. The win gives the Panthers a 4-2 record and a damn good feeling heading home as they suddenly are in the thick of the NFC South race alongside the Saints, who beat the Ravens in Charm City.
Meanwhile, the Buccaneers were dominant early against the Browns before blowing a two-touchdown lead, seeing the game go to overtime when Chandler Catanzaro missed a 40-yard field goal at the end of regulation. Almost impossibly, Catanzaro redeemed himself, giving Tampa Bay a 3-3 record and hope moving into the end of October.
Next year will be the 100th season of the National Football League, an anniversary that saw its logo unveiled over the past week. Only two teams from the inaugural 1920 season remain in today’s league, the duo being the Chicago Bears and Cardinals. The Green Bay Packers are actually the oldest club still active, but they were an independent from 1919-20, not joining the NFL until 1921.
Outside of that trio, only the Giants remain active from the 1920s. The early ’30s saw the next group that has survived, with the Detroit Lions created in 1930, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Washington Redskins coming into the fold in ’32, and the Philadelphia Eagles joining the following year.
The Houston Texans beat the Jaguars on Sunday, giving themselves sole possession of first place in the AFC South. Yet, all is not right in Houston.
Deshaun Watson had to take a 12-hour bus ride to Jacksonville for the contest, with the club’s medical staff concerned about the air pressure’s consequences on Watson’s ribs and bruised lung. Somehow, Watson is still cleared to play, and he looked every bit an injured star, finishing with a line that read 12-of-24 for 139 yards with a touchdown.
The Texans need Watson to both improve and stay upright if they want to be a real factor in the AFC. Houston is 4-3 and has a fine chance of winning the league’s most embarrassing division, but that’s old hat for this team. The mission is to take the next step and threaten stalwarts like New England and Pittsburgh.
On the other sideline, the Jaguars have to be in full-blown panic mode. Blake Bortles was benched, Cody Kessler is not the answer and the defense is crumbling. Jacksonville now hosts the Eagles in London, hoping to get right against a defending champion that squandered a 17-point lead to Carolina. In other words, Philadelphia won’t be easing into this one off an easy win.
The Texans and Jaguars are going in opposite directions on the standings board, but both have real issues that bare watching as we head towards November.