NFL

Saints winning big even when sloppy

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METAIRIE, La. (AP)

Every time the Saints harped on the turnovers and penalties they committed in their latest outing, they stopped short of using one operative word.

No one could describe them as ''costly,'' because they weren't. Not even close.

En route to a sixth straight victory, New Orleans (11-3) turned the ball over twice in its own territory and committed six penalties for 65 yards, including one holding penalty that wiped out a long scoring pass to Robert Meachem.

The Saints still won by 22 points, proving they are playing well enough in the final weeks of the regular season to win big even when they make some big mistakes.

''Each game is different, but it is encouraging that we had those mistakes and were still able to come away with a big win,'' said Saints receiver Lance Moore, who had two TD catches in the 42-20 victory over the Vikings. ''We just need to put it together in a complete manner. ... We can get better.''

If the Saints do get better, they'll be tough to beat on Monday night, when they host Atlanta (9-5) with the NFC South Division crown on the line.

''We're peaking at the right time,'' Saints linebacker and defensive captain Jonathan Vilma said. ''I'm talking about jelling as far as a team - offense, defense, special teams - the camaraderie within practice, within the meetings.''

While the Saints' defense continues to rank near the bottom of the league (tied for 24th) in yards allowed per game with 366, the unit has been able to get enough stops on third down to limit opponents' scoring by holding them to field goals or keeping their just out of range.

New Orleans gets a stop on nearly one in every three third-down situations, which ranks sixth in the NFL. The Saints are also second in the NFL - trailing only Green Bay - in point differential at plus-10.8 per game.

After both turnovers by the Saints' offense at Minnesota - a fumble by tight end Jimmy Graham and a botched shot-gun snap by center Brian de la Puente when Drew Brees was not looking - the defense held Minnesota to field goals.

After Meachem's TD was called back by a penalty on fullback Jed Collins, Brees continued to march the Saints downfield for a 5-yard TD pass to Moore. That gave the Saints a 7-3 lead and they never trailed again, instead pulling away as Brees finished with 412 yards passing and five touchdown tosses in little more than three quarters of work.

''You like to be hitting your stride and playing your best football'' in December, Saints coach Sean Payton said. ''You're either getting better or you're getting worse each week and that's really the truth. There's nothing simpler than that. ... Finding players that have that will to prepare and that want-to or drive to improve on the week prior and get better as the season goes on - I think that's a key component to preparing for the postseason.''

The Saints are already in the postseason. Now it's only a matter of whether they win the division and which seeding they get.

The Falcons haven't clinched a playoff spot yet, but can with a victory in their last two games.

''We're going to play a very good opponent and someone we're very familiar with in a game that obviously has a lot riding on it,'' Payton said. ''We look forward to that challenge and we'll go from there.''

Tagged: Saints, Drew Brees, Brian de la Puente

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