The New Orleans Saints earned a hard-fought 20-12 victory over a very tough and unrelenting Chicago Bears team earlier today at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, for their 5th straight victory.
The 2017 Saints team is now only the 8th team in franchise history to have a 5-game winning streak. The other 7 Saints teams with 5-game winning streaks (1987, 1991, 1992, 2000, 2009, 2011, and 2013) ALL made the Playoffs.
The Saints improved their overall record to (5-2), and now will return home game at home against their NFC South Division rivals, the (2-5) Tampa Bay Buccaneers; whom the Saints will likely be favored to beat handily by the odds-makers out in Las Vegas.
With that in mind, here are the Saints News Network's 5 biggest "winners and losers" from today's hard fought victory for the NFC South division-leading New Orleans Saints, over the gutsy Chicago Bears.......
THE BIGGEST LOSERS
5. WILLIE SNEAD, WIDE RECEIVER
Saints fans were anticipating the long-awaited return of Snead and his being re-incorporated into Sean Payton's passing offense after the team activated him, but the 3rd year wide receiver barely played save for a few snaps.
Part of the reason for that is that it appears (at last for the moment) that Snead has been surpassed on the team depth chart as the team's #3 WR by fellow 3rd year veteran and UDFA Brandon Coleman; who made a further case for his move up the WR ranks with a 54-yard reception early in the 1st quarter.
It's been a very disappointing year thus far for Snead dating back to his June arrest for a DUI, and one has to at least wonder when Snead will start getting more playing time, going forward.
4. RAFAEL BUSH, SAFETY
For fans watching at home, they couldn't help but notice the play in the 3rd quarter in which Bears veteran tight end Zach Miller appeared to break his left leg as he tried to make a catch in the end zone on a deep pass thrown by Bears rookie QB Mitchell Trubisky.
Trubisky threw what appeared to be a 25-yard touchdown to Miller; but as he landed on his left leg in the right corner of the end zone, it appeared to buckle with Saints veteran back-up free safety Rafael Bush draped behind him. Miller caught the pass, but then officials used replay to overturn it — even though multiple views appeared to show him securing the ball.
But the honest truth is that Bush was clearly beaten on the play, and the Saints were fortunate that it didn't alter the outcome of the game and give the Bears momentum. Perhaps it's nitpicking, but then again Miller isn't exactly the fastest guy in the world, so it probably means that Bush (at least on this play) was either horribly out of position or just burnt badly.
3. COBY FLEENER, TIGHT END
Does anyone even remember Fleener playing in this game? Yeah — us neither.
Fleener had 1 catch for minus-1 yard, and seemed to become an afterthought in the Saints offense as back-up TE Josh Hill seemed to get most of the work as the primary tight end.
The rumors about the Saints looking to explore an option to bring back former TE Jimmy Graham were false as we reported a few days ago; but Fleener's serious lack of performance recently (3 catches for 21 yards in 3 games combined) will have those rumors coming back to life after today.
2. THE SAINTS RUN DEFENSE
Earlier in the week last week we warned in our Early Preview for the game with the Bears; that the Saints run defense had to play better than they did against the Packers the previous week in which they got GASHED for huge chunks of yardage while defending the opponent's run game.
Unfortunately, they didn't listen to us.
The Saints were run upon yet again by the Bears this time aroud, as they yielded another 157 yards rushing including a 102-yard game on 23 carries to Chicago RB Jordan Howard.
In fairness however, in a similar manner to the game last week at Green Bay, the Saints run defense did manage to "tighten up" for the rest of the game, as they held Howard to a meager 2.36 yards per carry.
Saints head coach Sean Payton said in his post-game press conference that the team has a lot of things to "get cleaned up"; and one would suspect this is one area that he was referencing.
1. MARK INGRAM, RUNNING BACK
We almost hate to put Ingram in this spot as today's "biggest loser", but we have no choice — since it was his mistakes late in the game that almost cost the Saints a victory.
Ingram did well early and throughout most of the game; as he powered through a tough Bears "Front 7" for a total of 75 yards and a TD on 18 carries.
However, his otherwise stellar performance was nearly RUINED by 2 fourth-quarter fumbles as the Saints were trying to put the Bears away for good. The fumbles gave Chicago a chance to make a come-back; and Ingram was benched for the final possession in favor of rookie RB Alvin Kamara.
But although head coach Sean Payton appeared to give Ingram an ass-chewing on the sidelines after the 2nd fumble; Ingram was defended by QB Drew Brees in an interview with FOX Sports after the game.
"He's going to bounce back," Brees told FOX sideline reporter Jen Hale. "Listen, there is not a guy who is more competitive or cares more than him. There's not a guy who's more well-respected or loved on this team than Mark. So he's the heart and soul. Sometimes that stuff happens, even to the best of us. He'll bounce back, I know he will."
Our "early" prediction for next week's game at home against Tampa Bay:
The return of "ANGRY" Mark Ingram, which will mean a whole lot of trouble for the Buccaneers defense.
THE BIGGEST WINNERS
5. WIL LUTZ, KICKER
After making our "loser" list last week, Lutz redeemed himself with a solid performance when the Saints needed him to against the Bears today.
Lutz made both of his field-goal attempts without any issues, one from 45 yards that he "banked in" off the left upright; and then hit another from 49 yards that fit in snug along the right upright.
But the bottom line was that he was accurate, didn't get any extra points blocked, kicked a majority of his kickoffs deep, and even made a TD-saving tackle on the one kick that Chicago did return.
4. MICHAEL THOMAS, WIDE RECEIVER
It's almost amazing when you think about the fact that the Saints won this game DESPITE the fact that Saints QB Drew Brees didn't throw a TD pass; which is the first time that's actually happened dating all the way back to October 4th, 2009, in a Saints win over the New York Jets at the Superdome during their Super Bowl season.
Part of the reason for that? The consistent and steady play of 2nd year WR Michael Thomas.
Thomas has been a reliable "go-to guy" for Brees when the team needs a clutch catch, and today he did that time and time again, a few different occasions in which the Saints converted some key 3rd downs.
Though the Saints eventually had to punt on a few of those drives, it still allowed them to eat up valuable time on the game clock; and allowed Brees to guide the team to its 5th straight win without having to "put it all on his shoulders".
3. A.J. KLEIN, LINEBACKER
Without any doubt, one of the stand-out performers for the Saints defense today was middle linebacker A.J. Klein; who made several big plays down the stretch, including when he knocked down a 4th quarter pass inside of 3 minutes remaining that would have ended up being a huge "catch-and-run" for Bears RB Tarik Cohen.
Additionally, Klein had not one but TWO near interceptions; the 2nd of which hit him perfectly right in the hands and could have resulted in a possible "Pick 6".
Nevertheless, it was a great day for Klein; who has been as about as solid as they come for the Saints defense during their current 5-game winning streak.
2. KENNY VACCARO, SAFETY
Vacarro — who has also appeared on our "losers" list in recent weeks — made sure that he wasn't going to be on the list this week, unless it involved "winning".
This is the same player that was benched earlier in the season, but today against the Bears: Vaccaro may have had his best performance of the year so far.
The 5th year veteran was all over the field; as he recorded 9 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, half a sack and a key PBU (pass broken up or pass defensed as it's also known as) on the Bears' final possession.
Vaccaro is in a 'contract year', and today he played like a man trying to earn his money.
1. MARSHON LATTIMORE, CORNERBACK
In all of my 44-plus years of following and now covering the Saints team (dating back to the first season I began attending games at Tulane Stadium in the 1973 season), I can't EVER recall a defensive rookie player having the impact like the one made so far this season by CB Marshon Lattimore.
The former Ohio State star continued his stellar play against the Bears, as he "blanketed" receivers before ending the game with a game-clinching interception that sealed the victory for New Orleans and sent a sold-out Superdome crowd out into the streets of NOLA happy and hopeful for the rest of the upcoming schedule.
The only other rookie on defense that's ever had this type of impact in Saints team history?
You may have heard of him: 1981 draft pick and 2nd Round defensive end Rickey Jackson of the University of Pittsburgh (now in the NFL Hall of Fame and who's name is in the Saints Ring of Honor), who then head coach Bum Phillips converted into an outside linebacker for his 3-4 defensive scheme.
The Saints only finished (4-12) during that 1981 season (which followed the disastrous 1980 season that saw them finish (1-15) ); but it was evident even back then in his rookie year that Jackson was going to be an All-Pro player for years and years to come.