Sorting the Sunday Pile Week 11: Saints sure look like NFL's most complete team
Plus the Eagles' formula for winning late, the AFC playoff mish mash and a budding young Vikings star
The curious thing about the Saints so far this year isn't how they'd been winning, but how they hadn't been winning. Sunday was a nice reminder that the Saints still have a Hall of Fame quarterback they can turn to when the going gets tough. It might be the biggest unsung advantage when analyzing what is shaping up to be a stacked NFC playoff race.
Drew Brees had been fine before Week 11 too, but he just had yet to really be Drew Brees. Not that he minds -- Brees is perfectly content operating a run-heavy offense and letting his defense finally minimize the number of passing attempts he needs to make each week.
The Saints currently rank fifth in points allowed in the NFL, the first time since 2013 they have been outside the bottom 28. Only twice since Brees arrived has the team been a top-10 unit in terms of points allowed (2013 and 2010) and in both those years the Saints won 11 games. At 8-2 after stealing a win from the Redskins, the Saints are going to get to those heights again, if not higher.
New Orleans had no real business beating the Redskins, either. Even though Washington nearly Kirk Cousins still handed Washington a 31-16 lead with about three minutes remaining on the clock. At that point of the proceedings, the game is just about over.,
Or it should have been.
Technically the Saints got the ball with 5:58 remaining and trailing by two touchdowns. Fox's Joe Buck accurately remarked that the game was "a long way from over."
Watch the drives and you can tell that Brees isn't losing. The Saints even ran the ball in the red zone with three minutes and change remaining while trailing by two touchdowns. It was the only time during the final six minutes Sean Payton took the ball out of Brees' hands, and the Saints quarterback would hit Coby Fleener on the next play for to cut the lead to eight points.
Rookie Alvin Kamara, who has been a revelation in both the running and passing game, bailed himself out from some scrutiny when he bobbled and secured a touchdown catch that set up his game-tying two-point conversion.
Credit the Saints' defense for a massive stop: after Samaje Perine picked up nine yards on two carries, the Redskins had a third down with a chance for a conversion to really salt the game away. Manti Te'o and Vonn Bell got unblocked looks at the Washington running back and stuffed him for a loss.
There was another shot for Washington, too, as the Redskins' defense picked off Brees trying to force the ball on a deep out to Brandon Coleman. Kendall Fuller hooked Coleman's facemask, so it was a good call. Brees didn't miss the throw. He didn't miss any throws, and was absurd on the final two drives:
Brees on final two drives
Brees would not even need to throw in overtime, as the Saints ran the ball twice and set up Will Lutz for a chip-shot field goal, which he promptly buried to effectively end the Redskins season.
We should start looking at the Saints and consider them the most complete team in football. For years we've watched Brees rack up piles of passing yards -- he's led the league in passing yards seven times since arriving to New Orleans via free agency in 2006. He has led the league in passing completions five times in that span and passing attempts four times. Brees has more 5,000-yard passing seasons (5) than every other quarterback in NFL history combined (4).
Brees is currently on pace for only 545 passing attempts, which would be his lowest total since ... 2009. Yup, as we Super Bowl team and this squad, especially with respect to their offensive approach. New Orleans is running the ball so well right now and the offensive line is clearing out huge holes for the running backs. Payton is dialed in as a playcaller. The defense is locking people down., there are a lot of similarities to the Saints' last
But the difference between New Orleans and other contenders is the one weak spot is actually the Saints' ultimate strength. The Jaguars run the ball well and play great defense, but if push comes to shove and Blake Bortles has to throw 40 times, things can get ugly. The Saints are driving around town in a Ferrari but declining to get out of third gear. Brees showed Sunday just how quickly they can elevate their offense and turn on the points faucet.
This eight-game win streak -- which came after an 0-2 start to the season, making the Saints the first team in the Super Bowl era to pull off such a streak -- is the Saints' longest win streak since 2011. The Saints also became the first team since 2011 to come back and win after trailing by 15 points or more with less than three minutes left in the fourth quarter.
They just have some kind of mojo cooking, and it's meshing with the talent.
"We some dogs. We some dogs, man. No matter what happens, no matter what's going on in the game, we got faith in one another," Mark Ingram said after the game via an ESPN broadcast. "Nobody's panicking, everybody's got faith in each other, everybody believes in each other. When you got a team that do that, the sky's the limit."
There is a lot of football left to be played, but 11 weeks in, teams have an identity. The Saints can run the ball, play above average defense and if need be are capable of unleashing Drew Freaking Brees on you. There are lots of very impressive and very diverse teams in the NFC right now, but the Saints might have the highest upside and best balance.
Let's be very clear: the Saints' praise is not a slight to the Eagles, who just keep dominating teams. The Eagles are great; I picked them to win the division, and I very much enjoy watching Carson Wentz play. A Saints-Eagles NFC Championship Game sounds superb. The Eagles are the best team in football right now, until someone takes over their record.
They've got a couple more weaknesses than New Orleans in my opinion (no one's taking Wentz over Brees in a playoff game, right?) but their strengths are built for the long haul in terms of dominating down the stretch.
More specifically, the Eagles are loaded for bear with pass rushers and have a downhill ground game that will destroy teams when they have a lead. Check out this stat: After snuffing out the frisky Cowboys on Sunday night, the Eagles have a positive point differential of 70 points in just the second half of games this year. That would rank sixth in the NFL, behind the actual Eagles and five other teams.
It's because when they get a lead, they're hard to catch. When they're up, they can send a wave of pass rushers at opposing quarterbacks. Fletcher Cox and Timmy Jernigan form the best defensive tackle combo in the league right now. Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry, Derek Barnett and Chris Long will cause major problems when they can pin their ears back, knowing the team is leading and the opponent is throwing.
And with the addition of Jay Ajayi at the trade deadline, the physical running game is only more dangerous.
Fantasy owners might not like seeing Corey Clement and Kenjon Barner score touchdowns, or LeGarrette Blount melting the clock away, but the guess here is Doug Pederson does not have one care in the world about it. One of the Eagles' biggest weaknesses after Darren Sproles went down was the running game, and now they're a petrifying group of bowling balls who happen to stay fresh thanks to a smart rotation.
Wentz has some people out there who like to detract from his skillset, which is weird. Whatever. He's the MVP right now, or at least one of two or three guys in the discussion. And he was throwing some darts after halftime. The Eagles are a legitimately great team, and they have the qualities you want to see in a contender.
AFC's jumbled playoff race
While the NFC is a mash of really good teams, the AFC is a wasteland of mediocrity. Critics will decry the bloated playoff process. We will sit here and watch the world burn as some currently 4-6 team goes on a run and then beats the Jaguars in a wild-card game.
Who are the contenders for such a position? Well, the Baltimore Ravens have to stand out after taking over the No. 6 spot on Sunday by blanking the Packers in Lambeau. The Bills, who previously owned property on Park Place, got sandblasted by the Chargers in L.A..
Baltimore's blanking of the Packers was their third shutout of the season, having shut out the Bengals in Week 1 and the Dolphins in Week 8. Dean Pees' team is not locking down the Greatest Show on Turf or anything -- Andy Dalton, Jay Cutler and Brett Hundley probably wouldn't get the old Joe Flacco "elite" label this year -- but a shutout in the NFL is still a shutout in the NFL. And three shutouts? That rarely happens.
In fact, just four other teams have done it in the past 30 years. Three of those teams won the Super Bowl, and all four made the playoffs.
Won Super Bowl
Lost Wild Card
Won Super Bowl
Won Super Bowl
Just from a strict statistical comparison, the 2017 Ravens best compare to the 2001 49ers. That's fine. This Ravens defense is very good, but it is not historically great. Baltimore is only sixth in yards allowed and third in points allowed. This Ravens team has benefited from getting a couple of just horrific teams on the schedule. Fortunately for Baltimore, there is more to come. Houston is up next on Monday night after Thanksgiving, and Baltimore closes out with the Browns, Colts and Bengals. This is a team that, with its defense, should win nine or 10 games. That puts Baltimore in a very good spot for a playoff spot. Win those four games and the Ravens have a 98 percent chance of making the postseason.
Don't sleep on the team that allowed the Ravens to slide into the six-hole though. The Chargers -- nay, my Chargers -- have found a way to repeatedly self destruct this year, as they are wont to do. But coming off a tough loss in Jacksonville (L.A. blocked a field goal that still managed to go in), the Chargers got handed a gift in the form of Nathan Peterman starting for the Bills. They responded by intercepting him five times in the first half, becoming the only team in the last 20 years to record five picks in a first half. Peterman, a fifth-round rookie, would be benched for Tyrod Taylor in the second half. (We'll see what Sean McDermott does about the situation; he says he plans to evaluate everything. Maybe he should start with the five interceptions.)
Los Angeles never let up and eventually won the game 54-24. It was the sort of soul-cleansing destruction of a bad team with a young quarterback that a would-be playoff contender needs. The Chargers have a formula to win games -- Philip Rivers is an elite quarterback with lost of weapons (hello, Keenan Allen, thanks for showing up to 2017!). The pass rush combo of Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa is a quarterback's worst nightmare.
And the Chargers' schedule is friendly too. The play at Dallas on Thanksgiving (the Cowboys are reeling and could be missing Tyron Smith), then get the Browns and Redskins at home (both winnable games; the Chargers will be favored). They play at Kansas City (division game, it's tough, but they've won there) before playing the Jets on the road (very winnable game, could also see them losing it) and then close with the Raiders at home in Week 17 (are the Raiders good?). I'm not suggesting they're going to run the table or anything, but there's enough there to work to .500 and make a playoff run.
The division isn't out of reach for either the Chargers or Raiders -- Kansas City is only two games up, and the Chiefs still play Oakland and L.A. this year. The AFC West could provide us with a little entertainment down the stretch.
The AFC will too -- the Bills, Dolphins, Jets, Bengals, Texans, Chargers and Raiders are all 4-6 and just one game out of the playoffs. Baltimore and Los Angeles would be my top two choices to make a run here, but anything is on the table in this sloppy jumble.
A future superstar
Watching the Vikings pull away from the Rams on Sunday, it was hard not to notice the biggest factor for Minnesota's offense takeover, as wideout Adam Thielen posted another monster game. A week after putting up a pair of touchdowns, Thielen followed the effort up with a 123-yard effort that featured a 65-yard touchdown scamper.
Case Keenum is playing really well, but that's all Thielen there. He has great hands (I believe he had one drop against the Rams and it was kind of a stunner), has underrated speed and can go up and win jump balls.
He gets open deep. It might get called a lazy comparison, but it's not hard to comp him to Jordy Nelson.
He's a technician too, capable of breaking off someone's ankles on shorter routes to get completely wide open.
Thielen is a known commodity to Fantasy Football players, but the average fan -- or just the average human -- probably doesn't understand exactly what he's doing. Thielen puts up video game numbers in a casual fashion. With his performance Sunday, he became just the second Vikings wide receiver in franchise history to record 60 catches and 900 yards in his team's first 10 games of the season.
The other guy? Randy Moss in 2003. Prime glisten/glossin' time right there.
Thielen is a budding superstar who went undrafted and was not really recruited. It's a reminder how difficult this game is to figure out, how difficult scouting/drafting is and how silly it is to ignore what our eyes show us, especially when it is married to the box score.
Thielen is a stud. Know the name.
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