1. I love the 49ers' rags-to-riches story this season, but you've got to pour on the points to win in the playoffs. And there's only one team in the NFC capable of matching scores with the undefeated and defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers. And that would be the New Orleans Saints, who display an embarrassment of riches on offense.
Where to begin with the offensive extravaganza the Saints put on Monday night against the outmanned Giants? Try these statistics on for size and tell me if anyone but the Packers might be able to match them:
• New Orleans amassed a season-high 577 yards of offense against New York, the second-highest total in Saints franchise history. New Orleans had eight plays of 20 yards or more, but still somehow did all that damage without a 100-yard rusher or a 100-yard receiver.
• Five Saints scored touchdowns, with two running backs (Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas), two pass-catchers (tight end Jimmy Graham and receiver Lance Moore had two each) and quarterback Drew Brees (one eight-yard rushing score) finding the end zone. Brees also chipped in with four passing touchdowns to go with his 363 yards passing and one attempted slam dunk over the crossbar.
• The Saints ran for 205 yards, threw for 372, punted just twice and played turnover-free ball. New Orleans had four touchdown drives of at least 80 yards, and another for 73 yards. The Saints opened the game with a 70-yard drive that produced no points when a fake field goal didn't result in a first down.
"The thing about this team is we have so many playmakers," said Ingram, the rookie running back who led the Saints with 80 yards rushing on 13 carries. "When guys are on the field, we still have elite players standing on the sideline. So at any time we know we can make a play. We know we can score at any moment in the game."
It almost felt like the Saints scored at every moment of this game, with nine players touching the ball on offense and eight of them accounting for 50-plus yards of offense. New Orleans had 354 yards and 18 of its 31 first downs in the first half, when it took a 21-3 lead into the break.
"I would put our group against anyone," said Saints receiver Marques Colston, who had three receptions for 78 yards, all on the just-before-the-half two-minute drill that ended on a 10-yard Moore touchdown catch and re-established New Orleans' dominance at 21-3. "We've got a lot of confidence in these guys in the locker room, and I think we're headed in the right direction.
"When we're balanced, we're a pretty tough offense. We were able to get the running game going tonight with the passing game, and it just makes it really tough on defenses. The goal for us is to keep the tempo high and just score as many points as possible. Anytime you get up by a couple scores, it kind of makes the opposing team one-dimensional. And we were able to do that tonight."
This Saints team is scary good on offense, ranking first overall in the league on offense and in passing. In the NFC, and maybe the entire NFL, only the Packers can hope to trade punches and points with New Orleans.
2. As good as Brees has been in his record-breaking six-year run in New Orleans, he's playing his best ball yet in 2011. With 363 yards passing against the Giants, Brees is now on pace for 5,366 yards this season, which would break Dan Marino's 1984 NFL record of 5,084 yards by almost 300 yards.
Brees was uncanny against New York, dissecting a Giants defense that looked almost helpless at times. He finished 24 of 38, with four touchdowns, no interceptions, no sacks and a 129.6 passer rating. With his eight-yard, third-quarter touchdown run, Brees became the first New Orleans quarterback with four passing touchdowns and a rushing score in the same game. According to ESPN, his performance was singular in Monday Night Football history, making him the first QB in the 42-year series to amass at least 350 yards passing, throw for four scores and run for another touchdown.
"The crazy thing is that's what we've come to expect from him in games like this," Colston said. "It was a big stage and he rose to the occasion, like he always does, and that was big for us."
The Giants had no answer for Brees, who completed at least two passes to seven receivers, and reeled off six completions of 20 yards or more.
"We weren't able to cover them," an exasperated Giants head coach Tom Coughlin said. "They put themselves in position with simple little throws. They beat us in the flat a couple times. And [they beat us] down the sideline. They have good personnel and they distribute it."
That would be Brees who distributes it. He has now thrown at least one touchdown pass in 38 consecutive games, second-longest in league history behind Johnny Unitas's 47-game streak, and he extended his own league mark of completing at least 20 passes in a 31st straight game.
The Saints are now averaging 449.6 yards of offense per game, and that's more than 45 yards better per game than they managed in their Super Bowl-winning season of 2009, when they led the league in offense and passing.
"I feel like we have the opportunity to be better [than 2009]," Brees said. "We're not there yet. As I look at our guys, we have a lot of guys from that '09 team. The guys we've added -- Jimmy Graham, Darren Sproles, Mark Ingram -- not too shabby."
Brees has talked openly of how much he wants to break Marino's season passing mark, and it looks in serious jeopardy at this point. He repeated it as a goal of his after Monday night's blowout.
"I expect perfection," he said. "I understand it's impossible to achieve. Deep down, I know there's some things I can do better."
Maybe, but the rest of the league sure doesn't want to see it. They're hoping Monday night was as good as it could possibly get for Brees, and it's all downhill from here. Good luck with that.
3. Things we have learned to count on in the NFL:
• At least half the league or so remaining mathematically alive for the playoffs in Week 17.
• Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers to produce a passer rating of 110 or better per game.
• And Coughlin's New York Giants coming apart like a cheap suit in the second half of the season.
Stop me if you've heard this one before, but New York is in free fall now that the weather has turned chilly. The Giants' loss at New Orleans Monday night was their third in a row, and even wild-eyed optimists would admit that New York's playoff hopes are suddenly in serious trouble. I don't think I'm going out on a limb here in predicting that this will be the league's first postseason without a Manning in it since 2001.
Here's the pertinent math: The Giants (6-5) now trail the Bears, Falcons and Lions (all 7-4) in the NFC wild-card chase, and also are a game behind Dallas (7-4) in the NFC East. Those one-game deficits with five weeks remaining look even bigger when you digest New York's schedule.
The Giants play host to 11-0 Green Bay next Sunday, travel to those red-hot Cowboys, winners of four in a row, in Week 14, face the Jets in a "road" game in Week 16, and then get a rematch with Dallas at home in Week 17. Only a Week 15 visit from Washington looks like a potential soft touch, and don't forget, Rex Grossman and the Redskins beat New York in the regular-season opener.
I'm extra bullish on the Cowboys' chances to win the NFC East because wasting strong starts are such a tradition by now for the Giants, who were 6-2 and two games up on the Cowboys in the division just three weeks ago. In Coughlin's eight years on the job in New York, his Giants have been at least 5-3 at midseason every year. But they've mounted a five-win second half just twice, with a .500 record or lower in the second half five times. And they're about to make it six, because they know the way home from here.
The numbers don't lie: The second-half story is beyond ugly in the Coughlin era. New York is 47-17 in the first half of the season from 2004 on, but just 24-35 in the second half. From plus-30 to minus-11 is one heck of a pendulum swing, but we've seen the Giants go on that particular ride time and time again. Sure, New York finished strong in 2007, but really that just occurred in its memorable 4-0 playoff drive to a Super Bowl title. Those are the only four postseason wins Coughlin owns in New York, and missing the playoffs again this year would make it three seasons in a row in that dubious department.
Play this one out to its logical conclusion and it's not hard to imagine New York trailing the Cowboys by three games with three games left to play any minute now. All it's going to take is for the Giants to lose to Green Bay and at Dallas the next two weeks, and for the Cowboys to win at Arizona and beat New York head to head in Week 14. All of which is entirely plausible, and more likely probable.
And at that point, it'll be ballgame for the Giants, and likely curtains for Coughlin, the only other Giants head coach besides Bill Parcells to win a Super Bowl ring. Maybe New York's ownership elects to bring back the 65-year-old Coughlin in 2012, but I wouldn't count on it. Three years without a playoff trip, four years without a playoff win, and yet another second-half collapse probably means change is on the horizon for the Giants.