Saints are outperforming the Packers

The New Orleans Saints are better than the Green Bay Packers. That wasn’t true on Sept. 8, and it might not be true on Jan. 22, when they would, theoretically, meet in the NFC championship game. But I’m pretty sure it’s true right now.

I’m sure because I just watched the Saints tear the Atlanta Falcons to pieces Monday night, 45-16, to clinch the NFC South title. But that wasn’t the best story, and neither was Drew Brees throwing for his 5,087th yard to break Dan Marino’s single-season passing record. Those were both nice sidebars, but they were inevitable sidebars, and inevitable isn’t interesting.

What’s interesting is the playoffs and the possibility that the best team in the NFC at the moment might not be Green Bay, which is 14-1, already has home-field advantage wrapped up and owns a 42-34 victory over these same Saints in the first game of this season.

The Packers are the defending Super Bowl champions, flirted with perfection deep into December and have done nothing at all to indicate that they’re sliding. But if you stripped away the records and simply watched how the teams are playing now, well, the Packers haven’t looked as good as the Saints since probably Thanksgiving Day.

In that span of a month, the Packers had to come from behind in the fourth quarter to beat the Giants, blew out Oakland at home, lost to Kansas City and gave up 441 yards Sunday in a 35-21 victory over the Chicago Bears. The Saints? They blew out the Giants, Detroit and Minnesota and won at Tennessee — a far tougher schedule — before smacking yet another playoff team in the Falcons.

“I think this is our best December since this group has been together,” Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief said. “This is the kind of football you want to play right now. If you’re going to peak, this is the time you want to peak. That’s exciting for us.”

There really wasn’t much Atlanta could do to slow the Saints. Their running game looked powerful. Brees pretty much put the ball wherever he wanted whenever he wanted. Take a sack or a holding penalty? No big deal. Third and long? Piece of cake. The Saints converted nine straight third downs before finally settling for a field goal in the third quarter.

How dominant was New Orleans? It was 21-10 at halftime, and it might have been 28-10 if not for a fluke interception in the end zone that tight end Jimmy Graham muffed and Atlanta safety William Moore batted in the air before it was finally picked off. And if that’s the kind of play it takes to keep the Saints off the board these days, you’re probably going to have to find another way to beat them.

Because New Orleans did all that against a good defense, a defense that came into the game rated ninth in the NFL in yards allowed and 10th in points given up. Here’s how good New Orleans is going: In the past 10 games, only one team has scored more than 23 points on Atlanta, the Saints. And they’ve done it twice.

Oh, and by the way, they also scored a touchdown on defense, too. They got a 92-yard kickoff return. They allowed a couple big pass plays, but they pretty much shut Atlanta’s running game down. It was a complete performance, which is what separates the Saints from the Packers.

“We’ve practiced really well, and it seems like we’re coming along at the right time with our special teams, our offense and our defense,” running back Darren Sproles said.

The Packers haven’t had a lot of complete performances against quality teams. They’ll score on anyone, but anyone can score on them. They’re not getting as much out of their running game as they did last year in the playoffs, and their secondary isn’t playing as well. Green Bay is 14-1 for a reason, but there are definitely some issues.

But no matter how much better they’re playing than Green Bay, there’s a huge question for the Saints before they can think about returning to the Super Bowl: Can they overcome the brutal road to get there?

The NFL isn’t the BCS or the NCAA tournament. You don’t get a better seed for being hot at the right time. Though they’ll head into the playoffs on an eight-game winning streak if they can beat Carolina at home on Sunday, the Saints will end up paying dearly for a rough October in which they suffered confounding losses to St. Louis and Tampa Bay — teams that are a combined 6-24.

Because of the Saints’ missteps, the San Francisco 49ers are in position to wrap up the NFC’s No. 2 seed this weekend with a win at St. Louis. That means the Saints’ road to the Super Bowl would start with Atlanta or Detroit at home, then to San Francisco for the divisional game and probably Green Bay in the sub-freezing temperatures of January.

It won’t be easy, but the Saints are trending in the right direction. When they walked out of Lambeau Field on Sept. 8 after a wild loss, they knew they probably would be playing catch-up to the Packers all season. The records don’t show it, but the Saints have caught them. They’re only a few weeks from an opportunity to prove it.