It felt like the party in New Orleans was over. 

It was as if there were no more daiquiris being poured. No more parades or beads being thrown.  No more Popeyes Chicken Sandwiches to serve.  It was the Who Dat Nation watching Ironman at the end of the “Avengers: Endgame.” The feeling was gut-wrenching.

Brees Injures Right Thumb Ligament

Drew Brees, the New Orleans Saints’ Ironman had seriously injured his throwing hand in a Week 2 defeat vs. the Los Angeles Rams. Brees, the future Hall of Famer, has missed only 1 out of 193 regular season games as a Saint due to injury.  And yes, Saints fans are this dramatic regarding Drew Brees. 

But after back-to-back numbing playoff losses to the Rams eight months prior and to the Minnesota Vikings in 2018, did this just cost the Saints a last shot at a Super Bowl with this core? Will the rest of the team band together or slack off?  The more serious question was, if this is the end of Drew Brees? 

These were all questions surrounding the Saints organization as they and the sports world waited the diagnosis and recovery time for Brees’ hand. Luckily for the team, the quarterback’s timetable to return from what was a UCL tear was only six weeks—enough time for him to be back to help salvage the season. 

Fast-forward six weeks later and the Saints, whose record sat at 1-1 at the time of Brees’ injury, are 7-1, winners of six-straight games with a stronghold on the NFC South division. Led by Coach Sean Payton, outstanding Special Team's play, and a sixth-ranked defense, the team never blinked. Fan-favorite and backup Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater did just enough to keep the offense afloat in Drew’s absence en route to five consecutive wins without the captain.  

Brees returned Sunday at home in a 31-9 rout vs. the Arizona Cardinals looking like himself, completing 79 percent of his passes, to go with nearly 400 yards, and three touchdowns. The 19-year veteran quarterback was able to knock off any rust he may have had (or lack thereof), as the team heads into their bye week, conveniently at the midway point of their season. 

Let's take a closer look at what the team was able to accomplish and what needs work heading into the bye. 

POSITIVES  

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

RUN DEFENSE 

It has been 709 days—34 games, including the postseason—since the Saints defense has allowed a 100-yard rusher. The unit has been exceptional defending the run, which is the foundation to any great defense. The Saints rank second in rushing yards allowed per game (84.2) just as they did a season ago. Since Week 1’s outlier vs. the Houston Texans where the team gave up 180 rushing yards on 23 attempts, the defense has only allowed 70 yards a game on the ground on 3.5 yards-per-attempt: numbers that would rank first and third in the league, respectively.

The depth of the defensive line has paid serious dividends to aid in defending opposing rushers.  The Saints used a healthy eight-man rotation of defenders who consistently pushed the line to create disruption.  Mainstay Linebackers Demario Davis and A. J. Klein have been consistent in violently attacking ball carriers with great angles to prevent leaky openings in the trenches.  

Linebacker Kiko Alonso, who the Saints acquired via trade in wake of putting Alex Anzalone on IR, is making his presence felt.  In Sunday’s game vs. the Cardinals, he blew up a key second half 4th and 1 carry to turnover the football back to the Saints, and helped to put the game further out of reach. 

The run defense has also received reliable help from the secondary, specifically from Defensive Backs P.J. Williams and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson who have consistently made plays tackles close to the line of scrimmage—plays that your average sub-215 pound DB would normally want no parts of. 

Chauncey Gardner-Johnson is a Great Addition

© Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

CHAUNCEY GARDNER-JOHNSON

Speaking of Gardner-Johnson, the rookie defensive back and former Florida Gator has been chewing up opponents on and off of the field (see his Twitter account) since receiving more snaps in wake of Williams’ two-game suspension.

The rookie defensive back’s talent flashed consistently throughout the preseason for the team.  The Saints must be ecstatic with how timely his performance is manifesting during the regular season.   Pro Football Focus (PFF) in the past two games, graded the fourth-round pick has as the NFL’s second-best slot cornerback with an overall grade of 81.7.  His coverage grade is 83.8.  Gardner-Johnson has only allowed 29 yards in coverage on 10 receptions, including four pass-breakups. 

His play has been a very-welcoming sign for the Saints who will have multiple free-agent defensive backs this spring and will need players like him to step up.  His arrival is also a testament to the excellent job the front office has done drafting and developing talent over the past few years.

Saints Offensive Line is Best in NFL

OFFENSIVE AND DEFENSIVE LINE

This season, the Saints have faced the following premier pass rushers:  Chandler Jones, Khalil Mack, Calais Campbell, Shaquil Barrett, Jadeveon Clowney, and J. J. Watt.  Yet, Saints Owner Gayle Benson, never having been a professional football player, had as many sacks as the six guys just mentioned combined; spoiler alert, zero sacks. 

Those same players combined to only have one QB hit (K. Mack) vs. New Orleans. In Week 1, the offensive line held the three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt without a statistic for the first time in his illustrious career.  Watt did not record one sack, quarterback hit, hurry, or deflection.

Led by Tackles Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk, the line has hit its stride in run-blocking.  Running Back Alvin Kamara has been sidelined with knee and ankle injuries for the past two weeks, the big guys up front have cleared the way for backup Latavius Murray’s back-to-back 100-yard rushing outings.

The Saints defensive line, the eight-man D-line rotation mentioned earlier, has been downright dominant for the this season.  The group is on track to match their top-five finish in sacks last year with 24 in eight games (49 last season).  Their pressure rate sits at 29.1 percent also, ranking fourth in the league.  Both lines playing at such a high level bodes well for a potential playoff run; The play of both will go a long way in determining how long that run could be.

Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

MICHAEL THOMAS 

First, you can’t guard him. Second, he is unguardable.  Third, refer to “first,” and “second,” please.  

After signing the richest contract for a Wide Receiver in NFL History this past July ($100 million over five years, $61 guaranteed), Michael Thomas is showing why he deserved it. Halfway through the season he’s already caught 73 passes for 875 yards and four touchdowns.  He’s on pace to break Marvin Harrison’s 17-year long record of 143 catches in a season, and eclipse 1700 receiving yards - something only seven other receivers all-time have accomplished. 

What makes his production even more outstanding is that he’s done so against four defenses ranked no lower than 13th, including three in the top ten.  His statistics didn’t see a dip at all when his Hall of Fame Quarterback went down with injury either; In the five games Bridgewater started at quarterback, Thomas still averaged 8.4 catches and 110.2 yards per game. 

One can try, but time and time again Thomas has proved that he cannot be guarded. 

NEEDS IMPROVEMENT 

Jared Cook - Saints Tight End #87

Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

JARED COOK 

This is probably the deepest team top to bottom that the franchise has had in at least eight seasons, but there are still a couple of areas the Saints will like to get better production from.  One being from the tight end position, specifically Jared Cook.  

Cook at age 32 was coming off a career-year in Oakland.   New Orleans signed to become a key piece to put the offense over the top.  Unfortunately, he has been anything but. Cook has missed the last two games with an ankle injury.  He was on pace to finish the season with less than 400 yards and 40 reception;  hardly worth his $15 million contract.

It is vital that the Saints get more production from the tight end position so that teams will have to respect the middle of the field which gives more space to Kamara and Thomas to operate.  This will especially be important during the playoffs when teams will inevitably look to bracket the star duo and force other receivers, like Cook, to step up. 

SPECIAL TEAMS 

The Saints Special Teams unit mostly has been excellent with two punt blocks, and Wide Receiver/Kick Returner Deonte Harris leading the league in punt return yardage.  Punter Thomas Morstead has 19 punts inside of the 20-yard line (second in the NFL).  However, in recent weeks the Saints have given up a kick return for a touchdown against Chicago, and Kicker Wil Lutz has missed three of his last six field goal attempts after making 13 of his previous 14.

Special Teams must use the bye week to correct fundamental errors which can become back-breakers and momentum-swingers during games.  With the offense and defense playing as strongly as they are, bad special teams play cannot allow opposing teams off of the hook.

Demario Davis Saints LB #56

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

PREDICTION

The Saints will kick off the second half of their season on November 10th versus the Atlanta Falcons.  This will be the first of four division games in November.  The NFC South has looked significantly weaker than in previous seasons.  The Saints could extend their three-game division lead and clinch the division crown early in 2019.

This team will be as healthy as it’s been all year down the stretch and has already faced better teams and worse odds.  For the first time in franchise history, the Saints should sweep the NFC South en route to their third consecutive division title. 

The three games in between the remaining divisional matchups will be the last rough patch the Saints are likely to endure.  They will face San Francisco 49ers and Indianapolis Colts at home, then the Tennessee Titans on the road.  The undefeated 49ers will probably present the toughest matchup of the bunch as they boast the second-ranked defense in the league, while Head Coach and offensive-mastermind Kyle Shanahan runs the show on the other end. 

Evidenced by their recent 55-13 dominant win over the Carolina Panthers, the 49ers are a solid team.  I still expect the Saints to be victorious at home. The game will probably be flexed to Sunday Night Football making the Mercedes-Benz Superdome even more raucous, thanks to the “Who Dat Nation.”  QB Jimmy Garoppolo  has not been as good as advertised this season.  I believe against a ferocious Saints Defense, his performance could play a major part in the Saints winning the contest.

The Saints will come off the high of taking down a rising NFC foe in the Niners.  I expect the team will lose to either the Colts or Titans with slow starts and find themselves down and out too early to either team.  Both the Colts and Titans are bottom-four in the league in total giveaways but rank in the top half of the league in total defense. 

I have the Saints finishing 14-2 on the season - best record in franchise history - en route to what should be enough wins to earn a playoff bye and/or the NFC’s 1-seed.