Can such a sizable lead with nine games remaining be squandered? Absolutely. Just ask last season's Broncos. But the Saints are now firmly in command of the NFC South, and having already matched the best start in the franchise's 43-year history, there's very little competition standing in the way of a 13 or 14-win season that could well earn the Saints homefield advantage in the NFC playoffs.
And dare we say it? A 16-0 record is not as implausible as it sounds when you check New Orleans' remaining schedule. In their final nine games, the Saints face only three more opponents that currently post winning records: New England (5-2), Atlanta (4-3) again, and Dallas (5-2), with the Patriots and Cowboys having to journey to the Superdome for their meeting. The Saints' remaining opponents have a .359 winning percentage -- the lowest of any NFL team.
New Orleans should be 10-0 when it next plays before the Monday night cameras, against visiting New England in Week 12. The Saints get a visit from up-and-down Carolina (3-4) next week, then go on the road against the struggling Rams (1-7) and Bucs (0-7).
Though it's Week 8, New Orleans finally played its first division opponent of the season. The Saints still get two games against the Bucs and Panthers, and another meeting with the Falcons. They also make a trip to punchless Washington, which could be a mismatch of epic proportions. The race in the NFC South isn't completely over, but it's looking ever so likely that once again the NFL's most change-happy division will have a champion who vaulted from worst to first in the span of two years.
Last month, Falcons linebacker
Monday night, Atlanta had the chance to narrow the chase, and didn't quite get it done.
The Saints put normally efficient Falcons quarterback
That play gave the Saints a 28-14 lead at the break, and that was just enough to withstand a second half that Atlanta dominated. For the season, New Orleans kept its per-game average of three takeaways intact, and now has 21 through seven games. That's a huge statistic for any team, but especially for one that has a high-powered offense like New Orleans, where short fields can quickly be turned into touchdowns and field goals.
As good as Greer's play was, middle linebacker
The Saints are going to give up some points, and some yards (Atlanta had a healthy 442); but New Orleans is making plays that really matter on defense, and all those takeaways and defensive touchdowns erase a lot of mistakes. And remember, the Saints defense was playing without two key starters in outside linebacker
Atlanta prioritized getting Turner back into some sort of rhythm against New Orleans, and wisely so, given that Atlanta's ground game was a key weapon in keeping the ball out of
After averaging 4.5 yards every time he ran the ball last season, Turner's 3.4 average coming into the Saints game was alarming. He had topped 3.8 yards in just one game this year, and hadn't produced the explosive runs that were his specialty in '08. But Turner reached the Saints secondary fairly often Monday night, ripping off gains of 22, 13 and 37 yards in the first half and his exquisite never-stop-churning 24-yard run in the fourth quarter gave Atlanta a shot at the go-ahead touchdown.
The ball-security issues have to be the biggest concern facing head coach
Later, careless fumbles by running backs
The good news? The Saints have proven the past two weeks they can definitely take a punch, and then answer with a blow of their own. After the Brees fumble, New Orleans scored the game's next 21 points to go up by 14 at the half. But it was still a game in the final seconds, and New Orleans has lost a little of its invincibility in not being able to bury opponents the past two weeks.
True, one of Ryan's picks was of the Hail Mary variety at game's end, and another was a tipped pass that deflected to cornerback Porter. But this marks three consecutive multiple-interception games for Ryan, with two in a win over Chicago in Week 6, two in last week's 16-point loss at Dallas and three against the Saints.
That's by far the most interceptions in any three-game stretch of his career, and Ryan had just 11 picks in 16 regular-season games as a rookie. With nine interceptions in his first seven games, he's on pace for 21 interceptions -- almost doubling his 2008 total.
And here's one more stat the Falcons didn't want to hear about in connection with Ryan's interceptions: Greer's 48-yard touchdown return was Ryan's first pick-six as a professional.