Despite close games, Saints not feeling vulnerable
Drew Brees' advice to those concerned about New Orleans' past two performances is to ignore point spreads and judge the Saints by wins and losses.
``Despite what the odds might say, every game is a huge game, especially when we remain undefeated,'' Brees said on Monday, still beaming from the Saints' 26-23 win at Atlanta a day earlier. ``We know we're getting every team's best game. They're all going to be close.''
When the Saints handled the Patriots 38-17 on national TV on Nov. 30, they showed how dominant they could be. They've been unable to regain that form in their next two games, pulling out an improbable 33-30 overtime win at Washington and narrowly holding off the Falcons the next.
``You can't throw for five touchdowns every week,'' Brees said.
Still, the Saints were heavy favorites at Washington. Instead, Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell threw for a career-high 367 yards against a New Orleans defense that has looked increasingly worn down lately. Washington finished with 455 total yards and could have taken a 10-point lead inside the final 2 minutes, but missed a short field goal.
After that miss, New Orleans tied it with a quick touchdown, got an interception from Jonathan Vilma to stop Washington's last possession of regulation, forced a fumble to end the Redskins' first possession of overtime, then won with a field goal.
``What's important to me is that we're making the plays in crunch time,'' Brees said. ``When we're called upon to make them, we're making them and I feel like in Washington when we were given the opportunity at the end of the game to win it, we did. Against Atlanta, when we were given the opportunity, really defensively, to win that game at the end, they did it. So that's what I see.''
In Atlanta, New Orleans led most of the way and went up by as much as two touchdowns in the second half, only to have the Falcons storm back to tie it.
Although the Saints have outscored opponents 125-34 in the fourth quarter this season, they struggled to put the Falcons away, managing one field goal and botching a fake field goal on two trips inside the Atlanta 20-yard line.
The game got tight because Falcons backup quarterback Chris Redman threw for 303 yards, the second-highest single-game total of his career.
Some of the Saints' recent troubles on defense could be attributed to injuries. Starting cornerbacks Jabari Greer (sports hernia) and Tracy Porter (sprained left knee) both have been out about a month. Porter returned to practice on Friday on a limited basis, but is not certain to play against Dallas on Saturday night. Greer is not expected back until the regular-season finale Jan. 3.
Starting linebacker Scott Fujita has missed two games since a ruptured bursa in his knee became infected. His status against the Cowboys also remains unclear.
Yet, when Atlanta twice had the ball in the final minutes with chances to tie the game with a field goal or go ahead with a TD, New Orleans' defense clamped down. Vilma ended one drive with an interception and the next with a tackle that stopped the Falcons a yard short of converting on fourth down.
``The key is to win and come up with big plays,'' Saints coach Sean Payton said. ``We've been able to do that. We came up with the turnovers we needed yesterday and the stops defensively, just as we did a week ago.''
The Saints are 13-0 for the first time in franchise history, have clinched a first-round playoff bye and have matched the 2000 Saints for most road wins in a season with seven. After facing Dallas (8-5) this weekend, New Orleans hosts Tampa Bay (1-12) and finishes at Carolina (5-8).
Saints linebacker Troy Evans said New Orleans would like to close out the season impressively, but cannot reasonably expect every game to go as well as their win over New England.
``The Patriots game was a nationally televised game back in the dome, obviously emotions were high and everything just clicked,'' Evans said. ``Some weeks you have that and some weeks you don't. What I think makes a great team are the weeks where maybe not every play goes your way, and you still are able to win at the end. That's what being a champion in the NFL is all about.''