Friday October 31st, 2014

After a 24-23 loss to the Detroit Lions on Oct. 19, the New Orleans Saints were 2-4 and it looked for all the world as if their 2014 season was lost. Less than two weeks later, the team that runs the Big Easy now leads the NFC South with a 4-4 mark after a 44-23 barn-burner against the Green Bay Packers last Sunday night in the Superdome, and Thursday night's 28-10 victory over the Carolina Panthers. It wasn't a pretty win, especially in the first half, but Drew Brees eventually connected with his targets. He finished the win over Carolina with 24 completions on 34 attempts for 297 yards, one touchdown, one interception and a rushing touchdown in the third quarter. Running back Mark Ingram added two rushing touchdowns.

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"Coming into it, we preached starting fast and finishing strong," Brees said after the game. "I felt like we started fast as far as moving the football; we just had the two turnovers. Obviously, that's on me. I can't let that happen, even if it's just some bad fortune. But the biggest thing was early adversity, and we were able to overcome that. We had to battle back and find a way to get points, the defense came up with a big turnover to get us the first seven [points] and that two-minute drive at the end of the half was huge from a momentum standpoint [by] scoring pretty much on the last play of the first half. And then, we just preached finish. We had to come out and feel like we won the second half, and I feel like we did that."

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Meanwhile, the Panthers have now endured a four-game stretch without a win. The last time they came away with a victory was Oct. 5 against the Chicago Bears. And it's not looking good for the home team after this loss at Bank of America Stadium. As for the Saints, it was their first road win since Jan. 4, when they beat the Philadelphia Eagles in the wild-card round of the playoffs. They hadn't won a road contest before that since Nov. 21 against the Atlanta Falcons.

"I'll be honest, I think everybody else has made a bigger deal out of that than we have," Brees said. "I don't feel like it's a monkey off the back and I'm so relieved. If we go out and execute the way we can execute, and finish games like we did tonight, we're going to win a lot of football games."

And New Orleans does have its next three games at home (against the San Francisco 49ers, Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens) so perhaps, it's the Saints' time to gain some separation in a division where everyone seems to be headed straight for the middle.

Here are three thoughts from the game:

1. Cam Newton's regression starts up front.

It's hard for Cam Newton to have pocket presence when there isn't much of a pocket. And that's what happened for Newton in this game. Due to injuries that have decimated his offensive line, the Panthers started four undrafted free agents along their front five. Canadian David Foucault, the Université de Montréal product who's on the roster after looking good in a rookie tryout over the summer, started at left tackle. Left guard Andrew Norwell is another rookie, though he does possess Ohio State experience. Right guard Fernando Velasco is a five-year NFL veteran who's on his third team and right tackle Nate Chandler fills out the undrafted foursome.

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The landslide started with general manager Dave Gettleman's inability to react correctly to the retirement of left tackle Jordan Gross, and a host of injuries set things in motion from there. Predictably, it was hard for the Panthers to get any serious momentum going, and Newton finished with just 10 completions on 28 attempts for 151 yards, with no touchdowns and one interception.

Not that everything was the line's fault. Newton looked awful through most of this game. He missed open receivers, threw with interesting lower-body mechanics and he overthrew ball after ball with such velocity and too much height. And his receivers? They weren't always pretty, either. Newton's pick fell into the hands of cornerback Corey White after receiver Brenton Bersin flat-out dropped the pass. Kelvin Benjamin dropped a third-quarter pass in the end zone that the quarterback set up when he finally just decided to run the damned ball and take the game into his own hands. On the very next play, Newton ran out of a blitz look and ran the ball 10 yards for a touchdown. But that was the proverbial too little too late. When you can shut Benjamin and tight end Greg Olsen down as the Saints did, Newton has few other options and rarely enough time to find them if they were open.

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2. New Orleans' defense is starting to turn things around.

While the Saints' offense proved good enough to win, it is New Orleans' defense that has provided an equally intriguing story over the past three games. Though the first five weeks of the season, the Saints averaged 26.4 points per game allowed, gave up 112 rushing yards per game and amassed just 1.2 sacks per contest. In Weeks 7 and 8, Rob Ryan's defense allowed 23.5 points and 74 rushing yards per game, and upped the sack total to 3.5 per contest. It was easier to shut down this debilitated Panthers offense than it was to hold Aaron Rodgers' crew off last Sunday, but it's pretty clear that this team's sudden revival is based on both sides of the ball.

3. The NFC South is ... well, not very good

Let's say the Saints don't go on that run Brees anticipates for them over the next month? At this rate, the NFC South looks to be one of the NFL's all-time worst divisions, and there's an outside shot that this division could provide the second playoff entrant with a losing record in league history. The 2010 Seahawks "won" the NFC West with a 7-9 record, and the Saints in the wild-card round of the playoffs. New Orleans was coming off a Super Bowl win the season before. How's this for a potentially parallel scenario? What if the Saints win their division at 8-8 or 7-9, giving them an automatic home game, and the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks have to head to the Superdome because they didn't win their division? The mind positively reels.

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