NFL Nation: Drew Brees
The one that got away: Believe it or not, the Saints’ pass protection was not a big problem on Monday night. Quarterback Drew Brees was rarely under duress as Seattle stuck with a four-man pass rush most of the night. And on the few occasions when the Seahawks did blitz, Brees usually got rid of the ball in time. The bigger problem for the Saints’ passing game was that the Seahawks’ secondary and linebackers were outstanding in coverage and physical in the open field (see below).
However, the biggest play of the night came on the one play where the Seahawks did get to Brees in the first half -- the sack/forced fumble by end Cliff Avril that was returned 22 yards for a touchdown by fellow end Michael Bennett. Avril used his speed to get around right tackle Zach Strief and hit Brees from behind. Strief did manage to get one hand on Avril, which delayed Avril’s progress just a bit. But Strief wasn’t able to lock him up.
Brees, meanwhile, clearly didn’t sense the pressure coming and took time scanning his options before being hit as he started to throw. Bennett caught the ball out of the air and followed his blockers into the end zone (including a great block by cornerback Jeremy Lane against Saints receiver Robert Meachem).
There were two other occasions in the third quarter where Brees’ protection faltered. The first was when left tackle Charles Brown was flagged for illegal hands to the face against speed rusher Chris Clemons, negating a 6-yard completion to Marques Colston. The second was when Brees got hit as he threw by defensive tackle Clinton McDonald, who beat guard Ben Grubbs at the line of scrimmage.
I didn’t break down the final 20 minutes since this was a short week for the media too! (And because the last 20 minutes didn’t matter after Seattle was already up 34-7).
Stifling coverage: I can’t say enough good things about Seattle’s pass coverage. It was reminiscent of the way the New England Patriots shut down New Orleans’ passing attack with physical coverage in Week 6 -- only better. And while the Patriots used more man-to-man coverage, the Seahawks primarily used a three-deep zone.
Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman was as good as advertised. He held up well in bump-and-run coverage when the Saints tried to throw deep against him twice (first to Meachem, then to Colston). Sherman also blanketed Colston on an incomplete short throw in the third quarter -- in addition to all the times when Brees didn’t throw Sherman’s way because his man was so well-covered.
ESPN analyst Jon Gruden also pointed out how well Seahawks free safety Earl Thomas was doing in the back end a few times -- not biting on play-action fakes and shadowing Brees’ desired targets down the field. As ESPN Stats & Information pointed out, Brees was 0-for-8 on throws of 15 yards or more.
Cornerback Byron Maxwell also showed great instincts down the field in the third quarter, leaving Meachem to assist on coverage against tight end Jimmy Graham and knocking the ball loose while Graham tried to come down with it.
Earlier in the first quarter, Seahawks outside linebacker Bruce Irvin also delivered a shot to Graham to jar the ball loose for an incomplete pass after Graham had appeared to find an opening in the Seahawks’ zone coverage. Then on the very next play, fellow outside linebacker K.J. Wright made a great open-field tackle on elusive Saints running back Darren Sproles to stop him short of a first down.
Brees had to settle for check-down passes throughout the night. It worked well on the Saints’ lone touchdown drive -- a 13-play, 80-yard drive in the first and second quarters. But for the most part, the Saints were never able to string enough of those short completions together to mount a drive.
Missed throw: One of the most underrated miscues on Monday night came when Brees threw an incomplete deep ball to tight end Josh Hill in the second quarter on third-and-2. Hill had broken wide open behind linebacker Bobby Wagner after a play-action fake. But Brees’ throw went inside while Hill was running outside. (It’s unclear whether it was an off-target throw or a miscommunication.) Hill twisted his body as he turned to try to make the catch, but he couldn’t hang onto it. That would have put the Saints into Seattle territory, trailing just 20-7 late in the first half. Instead, they punted, and Seattle wound up scoring another touchdown before halftime.
Saints coach Sean Payton said the first run was an example of some players not hearing the audible call at the line of scrimmage because of the crowd noise. As a result defensive tackle Brandon Mebane ran free into the backfield between center Brian de la Puente and Grubbs.
Strief, Brown, guard Jahri Evans and tight end Benjamin Watson also either missed a block or got pushed back at the line at least once during the other failed runs.
The Saints had a few decent runs after the slow start -- including fullback Jed Collins' 12-yard gain behind great blocks by Brown and Grubbs on a third-and-1 at the end of the first quarter. But there wasn’t much to like in the ground game.
Noise issues: The Saints insisted that the crowd noise didn’t affect them too much in the loss. But there were certainly some instances where it did. The first play was a glaring example. The Saints also got flagged for one delay of game penalty in the first half (and should have been flagged for two, but the officials missed the other one). They also had to burn a timeout with the clock running down in the third quarter.
Something good: Graham was clutch on the Saints’ touchdown drive, catching a 20-yard pass on third-and-6 and a 2-yard touchdown pass. Brees hit Graham in stride on the first play while Graham ran a slant pattern from the wide receiver position. Maxwell gave Graham too much of a cushion on the play. On the touchdown, Graham had no cushion. But he ran a quick curl route and Brees fired a strike into a tight window before safeties Kam Chancellor and Thomas and linebacker Bobby Wagner converged on him.
Mitchell made the comment on a Fox Sports L.A. podcast after the Saints defeated the San Francisco 49ers 23-20 in Week 11. It was in reference to a late sack of Brees in which safety Ahmad Brooks was penalized for a hit to the head and neck, negating a fumble.
"The thing that I hated about the play -- the whole thing -- and this is what these offensive guys are doing: They’re kind of running with it," Mitchell said on the podcast. "Drew Brees is throwing a fit in the postgame interview saying how he got hit in the chin and he was dazed, and all this other stuff. And it’s like, 'Dude, the replay clearly shows he did not even touch you in the chin.'
"Stop being soft, get up off the ground. You fumbled the football, that’s why the only reason you were acting like you were hurt, is so you could draw a flag."
So naturally, as the Panthers (9-3) prepare to face Brees and the Saints (9-3) on Sunday night in New Orleans, the comments resurfaced.
"I don’t really think he’s a soft player," Mitchell said Wednesday. "Obviously, he’s a very, very, very good quarterback, and I have a lot of respect for what he’s done as a player and what he’s done in this league.
"It was really just more of a comment on the rule changes. It was really a 15-minute interview where someone took 45 seconds and made an article out of it."
He should have expected it.
"Daddy," he asked, his minute hand furrowed in confusion, "do you think the Saints can win?"
"I don't think so," the Watch replied, equally puzzled by the picks. "I kind of think Seattle might blow them out."
This jibed with what the young one thought, so it made him happy, and soon thereafter he was off to bed and sleeping the sleep of the reassured. Doubt had invaded his mind only briefly, which is longer than it ever apparently invaded Russell Wilson's.
Wilson and the Seahawks were bothered by Drew Brees and the visiting Saints in the same way lightning is bothered by an oak tree. The latest showdown between MVP Watch regulars was a wipeout, and it established Wilson as the clear top challenger -- if in fact there's ever going to be one -- to the man who has owned the No. 1 spot since August.
Manning has a thing where he quizzes his receivers throughout the week, trying to trip them up. Like, they'll be walking down a hall and all of a sudden he jumps out and shouts, "What's it mean when I yell, 'Omaha!' three times and flap my hands twice while looking at the left guard?" Or they'll be sitting at home and they get a text that says, "Quick! What's the capital of North Dakota?" and they have five seconds to text back the answer. He adds up their scores in his head all week, and instead of gold stars they get touchdown passes. Last week, Eric Decker apparently got every question right and also got Manning's car washed for him. Nothing wrong with a little extra credit. And in case you're wondering, the answers to the questions above are (a) probably nothing and (b) Bismarck. Most people guess Fargo, but it's Bismarck.
There's just nothing not to like. He can run. He can throw. He can freeze a safety with his eyes and hit the guy who comes open in stride. If one of his throws bounces off a receiver's face mask, it lands in the arms of a fullback who can just fall into the end zone with it. He always signals before changing lanes, and he never takes the last buffalo wing. He's probably a great cook, and the kind of guy to whom you'd go for parenting advice even though you're not even sure whether he has kids. Wilson just turned 25 and the world appears to be all his. There were 74 players taken ahead of him in the 2012 draft, and right now he's got a better chance than any of them to be standing there, teeth chattering, around 10 p.m. ET on Feb. 2 as Roger Goodell hands him a snow-covered Super Bowl MVP trophy in the middle of a frozen New Jersey swamp.
Before the game, they told Brees that Wilson used to idolize him as a quarterback who became an all-time great in spite of his height, and Brees thought to himself, "That's really cool. That makes me feel good." By halftime Monday night, Brees was thinking to himself, "Wait a minute. Did that kid just call me short?" And when the game was over, Brees balled up his socks and threw them across the room to the laundry cart as he always does, except this time they missed. This stopped everyone else in their tracks in amazement, but Brees just sat there thinking to himself, "Perfect. What else could go wrong tonight? Wait, what's Payton saying? Jimmy Graham broke the team plane? Jeez, there was a joke about that last week in the MVP Watch. Rats. MVP Watch. I'm probably going to be down to No. 3 in that now. That's just great."
Nobody could find Newton on Saturday night as the Panthers assembled for meetings at the hotel where they stay the night before home games. He was on the roof, shouting "War Eagle!" over and over again and pretending to rip open his shirt like Superman. Nobody who was watching from the ground could either make out for sure who he was or blame him, because things haven't been this exciting at Auburn since the semester Newton spent there. Eventually, he found his way to the meeting room, and nobody seemed too concerned. "One passing, two rushing?" he asked offensive coordinator Mike Shula. "Nah, let's reverse that this week, Cam, OK?" Shula answered. "Sure," Newton said, and resumed group-texting Charles Barkley and Bo Jackson to talk about how awesome that finish was.
Did you know that, in 2007, a Seattle man name Jason Burrows had his middle name legally changed to "Megatron," so that his real name is now Jason Megatron Burrows? Found that out at this link, which also includes interesting name-change information having to do with Optimus Prime and Peyton Manning. It has almost nothing to do with Calvin Johnson other than that Megatron is as you know his nickname, but there's not a lot to say this week about ol' Calvin. He saw just 10 targets in the Lions' easy victory over the Packers, his lowest such number in a game since Oct. 13. It was a rare Lions game in which it didn't feel as though they desperately needed him. But when you catch 10 balls for 101 yards and a touchdown and it seems like just a normal day, you're a top-five MVP Watch candidate.
He has nicknamed wide receiver Julian Edelman "Minitron," which is ... well, it's just terrible. Two Reliant Stadium security guards got fired after having their pictures taken with him on his way out of the stadium Sunday, which isn't Brady's fault but doesn't exactly indicate that everything he touches turns to gold the way it used to. It has been a tough kind of year for Brady, but it's absolutely turning around. He has 10 touchdown passes in his past four games after only throwing nine in his first eight, and his team is making its annual run at a first-round playoff bye. We should all have such rotten years. It helps that Rob Gronkowski is back and dominating attention from defenses. It also helps that Gronkowski doesn't need Brady to make up a nickname for him, because Brady obviously stinks at that. "Minitron?" Sheesh.
McCoy would be a lot higher on this list if Chip Kelly had remembered in the fourth quarter Sunday that he was on the team. The Watch is loving Kelly. He's super smart, has lots of great ideas about how to play offense, and his team is really fun to watch right now. But if the Watch had the league's second-leading rusher on his team and a 10-point lead with 13 minutes to play, "Throw deep to Riley Cooper" and "Spread it out and give it to Bryce Brown" would be easy options to skip past on the play sheet. The Watch gets that Kelly has his own style and the Watch digs that. Science, smoothies, running stadium stairs and still somehow never losing weight ... all cool. But Kelly also has McCoy, who can help you run the clock down while also offering the possibility of a very long touchdown. The latter obviously appeals to Kelly. The former needs to start.
Those familiar with the plot of "Damn Yankees" can join the Watch in positing Foles as Joe Hardy, who sold his soul to the devil to transform into the unlikely hero who could lead the Senators to championship glory. Were it a football story instead of a baseball one, the team would be one that had never won the Super Bowl, Hardy could plausibly be the quarterback who began the season on the bench, and his exploits would be impossible to believe. Something like 19 touchdown passes and no interceptions in eight games. Stuff at which the audience would marvel and chuckle at the same time, knowing it's just a show and nothing like that could ever happen in real life. The Watch just can't figure out who Applegate is in this latest retelling. Can't really be Kelly or Michael Vick. Donovan McNabb? Probably not. Merrill Reese? Maybe. A scheming Joe Banner, who's plotting to turn Hardy back into frumpy old Joe Boyd at the worst possible moment in the Week 17 game against the Cowboys? The mind boggles.
Strange things are afoot at the Circle K. Due to the Redskins' collapse, the Giants' inability to answer the bell in time and the fact that no one seems to want to buy into the Eagles, there is a groundswell of downright positive predictive feeling toward Romo and the Cowboys among the local and national NFL cognoscenti as December dawns. Romo is doing little to combat this vibe, operating the Dallas offense efficiently and leading long scoring drives in the fourth quarter. And everyone knows the Watch is no Romo-hater. But let's be honest here: Romo beating the Giants and the Raiders the past two weeks is kind of like Charlie Brown practicing with Linus or Snoopy. Until you actually see him kick that football away from Lucy, are you really supposed to believe it's going to happen?
Extensive research by the tireless MVP Watch staff has confirmed that no player named Vontaze has ever won an MVP award in any of the major American pro sports leagues. So history is not on his side. But if history were on his side, and if it were carrying a football, Burfict likely would tackle it. He's leading the league in tackles and came up with 13 of them on a bad ankle Sunday in a big victory in San Diego. The Bengals defense has weathered the loss of superstar lineman Geno Atkins better than anyone could have expected, and Burfict is a big part of the reason why.
Dome or doomed? Even after one of their ugliest losses of the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era, Brees steadfastly denied that the Saints struggle outside of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. He again pointed out that they have the best road record in the NFL since 2009 and said, "If you just look at that, nobody's really done their research obviously." However, Brees didn't try to deny what had just played out on the field in Seattle.
The truth lies somewhere in the middle. The Saints (9-3) aren't automatically doomed outside of the Superdome. They're just a lot more human. And that doesn't play well in matchups against teams like Seattle. The Saints only turned the ball over once (a costly fumble when Brees was sacked in the first quarter). But Seattle's defense was stifling, holding New Orleans to 188 yards (the Saints' lowest total since 2001). Whether it's the location or the opponent, the Saints will have to figure out how to deal with both if they want to get past the NFC Championship Game, because it will almost certainly be played in Seattle. But first they have to get past the Carolina Panthers in the NFC South.
Nowhere to throw: Brees threw for only 147 yards -- his lowest total since 2006. His streak of 43 consecutive games with 200 passing yards ended -- two shy of the NFL record held by Hall of Famer Dan Fouts. Brees was under duress a few times (such as when end Cliff Avril caught him from behind on the forced fumble). But mostly the Seahawks were blanketing all of his targets. Richard Sherman broke up two deep pass attempts. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Brees was 0-for-8 on throws 15 yards or more down the field.
Defenses that can get physical on the Saints' receivers and tight end Jimmy Graham have always caused the Saints the most problems. The Panthers might be able to do the same -- but the Saints will test them right back, especially in the Superdome.
Sleight of hand -- or feet: The Saints defense sold out to stop running back Marshawn Lynch -- and the Seahawks made them pay for it. While they held Lynch to 45 yards on 16 carries, everyone else seemed to burn them. Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson threw for 310 yards and three touchdowns and ran for 47 yards on eight carries. The Saints bit on play-action too often and got burned when they blitzed -- one time with their five-linebacker alignment. It wouldn't be a huge concern, because Seattle is built differently than most teams and simply won the chess match this time. But Carolina is built almost exactly the same way -- so the Saints need to be a lot more disciplined against the Panthers and quarterback Cam Newton.
Strief optimistic: Saints right tackle Zach Strief left Monday night's game with a left ankle injury, but said afterward that he's optimistic he can return sooner than later. "We'll see," Strief said. "I'm not a guy that has to be 100 percent; I'm a bad enough athlete. I think it scared me a good bit on the field, but it's not as bad as it could have been. So we'll see how it goes [Tuesday]."
SEATTLE -- Everything about the New Orleans Saints' performance in Sunday night's 34-7 loss to the Seattle Seahawks was stunning.
Except for the way they reacted afterward.
No, the Saints (9-3) didn't even pretend to put a positive spin on the dreadful performance that started ugly and stayed ugly.
“The fact of the matter is, we took one on the chin today. I mean, we're used to being on the other end of these types of games,” said Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who then confirmed the obvious for anyone who might have missed the definitive statement that was made on Monday night.
“As of now, the road to the Super Bowl looks like it's gonna travel through here.”
But to a man, everyone in the Saints' locker room scoffed at the notion that their confidence could be dented by coming up so small in such a big game.
“Hell no. No, not us,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “We ain't built like that. We're not soft in our core. We'll take our whupping like men. And we'll go back to work tomorrow.”
And they'll have to. Because the Saints don't have any time to lick their wounds with another critical battle for NFC supremacy coming up quickly -- a Sunday night date with the Carolina Panthers (9-3) in New Orleans.
The Saints will play Carolina twice in the next three weeks, with the NFC South title and the NFC's No. 2 seed up for grabs. The Panthers are the NFL's hottest team, winners of eight straight, and they present many of the same challenges as the team that just got done putting that whupping on the Saints (a stifling defense, a physical run game and a mobile dual-threat quarterback).
And to add one more degree of difficulty to that looming matchup, the Saints' short week got even shorter when a breakdown with their team plane forced them to spend Monday night in Seattle.
But the Saints' response to everything that happened on Monday night was essentially: challenge accepted.
“I'm going to sleep well knowing we've got everything in front of us,” Jenkins explained. Before he knew about the issues with the plane, anyway. “It's tough as a man to lose. We're all competitors, and to lose in this fashion is definitely disappointing. But I don't think anybody is going to lose confidence or doubt this team and what we can do.”
The way the Saints lost Monday is what was so shocking.
They managed only 188 total yards -- the lowest of the Drew Brees-Sean Payton era. Brees' 147 passing yards marked his lowest total since 2006.
The Saints did have one incredibly costly turnover in the first quarter, when Brees fumbled during a sack by end Cliff Avril and fellow end Michael Bennett returned it 22 yards for a touchdown. But that was the game's only turnover.
The rest of the game was just filled with a never-ending series of Seattle's defense shutting down New Orleans' offense -- then the Saints' defense being unable to stop the Seahawks.
When asked when the last time was that he remembered a loss so lopsided, Saints right tackle Zach Strief said, “Never."
Strief, who arrived in 2006, said even in the their biggest blowout loss of the era (a 41-10 defeat at Indianapolis in 2007), the Saints at least moved the ball early.
“I don't think I've played in a game like this since I've been here,” said Strief, who left early with a left ankle injury but is optimistic about his chances of recovery. “That's disappointing, especially in a big game and big stage like this, a situation that we're usually pretty good. And I really felt like we were ready to play this game. And yet, you have that performance and you don't like to see that, don't like to put that on tape.”
What went wrong? You name it.
Four of the Saints' first five drives resulted in three-and-outs, including the turnover. When they took shots deep down the field, Seattle's defensive backs broke up passes. When they tried to run, Seattle's defense swallowed them up. When they finally got some momentum going, they shot themselves in the foot with penalties.
As for the defense, it accomplished its No. 1 goal -- corralling running back Marshawn Lynch, who gained just 45 yards on 16 carries. But the Saints didn't stop anyone else.
Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson ran for 47 yards on eight carries, converting three first downs with his feet in the first half. And Wilson torched them with his arm, too, throwing for 310 yards and three touchdowns. He repeatedly burned the Saints when they tried to blitz or got overaggressive while biting on play-action fakes.
He completed a 60-yard pass to wide-open tight end Zach Miller, a 52-yarder to receiver Doug Baldwin behind Jenkins on a seven-man blitz and a 33-yard strike to receiver Ricardo Lockette behind trusty cornerback Keenan Lewis.
Wilson even accidentally completed an 8-yard touchdown pass to fullback Derrick Coleman after it was tipped by tight end Kellen Davis.
“This is a tough atmosphere to come in and play. But obviously we're a much better team than what we put on the field tonight,” Brees said. “We know Seattle's a great team. And we know it's a team we've got to deal with in the future. And we've gotta find a way to play better against these guys when that time comes.”
Brees and Payton both insisted that the crowd noise and weather conditions were challenges -- but not the reasons why they lost. The Saints said they were prepared for both, and they didn't use either as an excuse.
Saints fullback Jed Collins said Payton's message to the team after the game was that he “wants us to remember the sting.”
“The message is we hope to get another shot at these guys,” Collins said. “But tonight they were the better team.”
Payton made similar comments to the media after the lopsided affair.
“We got beat. We got beat good tonight. So it's tough,” the Saints' coach said. “We can't just say it didn't happen. But that being said, we have to quickly get focused on Carolina. They're playing as good of football as anyone in the league right now. So we'll do that.”
SEATTLE -- A few thoughts on the New Orleans Saints' 34-7 loss to the Seattle Seahawks, which moved them to 9-3 on the season.
What it means: Obviously this ugly loss doesn't bode well for the Saints' Super Bowl hopes. Not only did they get dominated on both sides of the ball in a fashion we haven't seen much in the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era, but the Seahawks (11-1) essentially locked up the NFC's home-field advantage. That means the Saints would almost certainly have to come back here in January -- if they make it that far.
But the Saints can't look that far ahead. Not with a huge showdown looming just six days from now against the Carolina Panthers (9-3) in New Orleans. The Saints need to win at least one of two December games against the Panthers to win the NFC South. The Saints are obviously a better team than what they showed on Monday night. But they'll still have a tough time against a Panthers team that poses a lot of the same problems as the Seahawks -- a physical, stifling defense, a power run game and a mobile dual-threat quarterback.
Brees shut down: Saints quarterback Drew Brees had one of his most ineffective games ever as a Saint. He completed 23 of 38 passes for just 147 yards -- his lowest total since 2006. He threw one touchdown pass and didn't throw any interceptions, but his fumble while being sacked in the first quarter was the biggest play of the game. It was returned 22 yards for a Seattle touchdown -- the kind of unforgivable mistake the Saints knew they had to avoid in this matchup. Brees tried to challenge Seattle's outstanding cornerback Richard Sherman deep twice, but Sherman broke up both passes. Nothing was working for the Saints on Sunday.
Stock watch: Just about everybody's stock went down on Sunday night, with the Saints struggling in so many areas. The area that probably stood out most, however, was the Saints' pass coverage. They obviously sold out to stop running back Marshawn Lynch in this game (and did a solid job against Lynch). But they got torched repeatedly by deep passes. Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson threw for 310 yards and three touchdowns, on passes of 60, 52 and 33 yards. Sometimes the receivers were wide open in coverage breakdowns. Once he beat cornerback Keenan Lewis, and once he beat safety Malcolm Jenkins.
Up next: The Saints will host the Panthers, which is good news since the Saints are so much more dominant at home (6-0 this year). But it's never easy for teams to bounce back from Monday night games across the country on a short week -- especially after such a physical matchup. This will be the Saints' first meeting of the year against Carolina, which is the NFL's hottest team with eight straight wins.
During his weekly phone appearance on 94.1 WIP-FM radio, Kelly was asked if Foles would be his quarterback for the long term. His answer: “I hope so.”
That prompted reporters to ask Kelly about it during his Monday afternoon news conference. The result was a variation of the back-and-forth over whether Foles or Michael Vick would be Kelly’s starting quarterback.
“I will say he is the starting quarterback for the next thousand years here,” Kelly said, tongue firmly in cheek. “If I'm wrong next week, then I'm wrong next week.”
On a more serious note, Kelly said Foles could well be the quarterback beyond this season, but again hedged.
“Yeah, as long as he can stay healthy,” Kelly said. “That's what I've qualified it with all the time. That is one thing I don't think anybody can predict, the health of anybody. That is a reality. How many quarterbacks have gone down this season in the National Football League? It's a pretty high amount.
“I think that's one thing everybody has to understand when you're going into this thing. It's a very, very difficult game. They take a lot of hits. I understand why they protect the quarterback in this league because of the hits they do take. When you have a quarterback that's durable and can last, that's when you know you've got a guy.”
The issue is of interest mostly because of the perception Kelly would eventually need to find a mobile quarterback of his choosing to run his offense. At 33, Vick was a stopgap at best. Foles was perceived to be too immobile to run Kelly’s system. As he’s put up unprecedented numbers and won games, though, it is natural to wonder if he can be the franchise quarterback.
But Kelly doesn’t like to waste time or energy on things when he doesn’t have to. The Eagles can’t draft Marcus Mariota or Teddy Bridgewater in time to play the Detroit Lions Sunday, so why speculate? By the time they have to decide on the draft, they'll have four more Foles performances, plus possibly the postseason, to evaluate.
“Right now, I'm on a one-week deal,” Kelly said. “I don't think Nick's going to come in tomorrow and say I don't want to play anymore because you guys don't want me here six weeks from now. So the questions we get asked about it long term, right now is not long term. Long term for us is this Sunday against the Detroit Lions, that is the end of the deal.”
Throughout the competition between Vick and Foles, Kelly would say that if he had a player like Tom Brady, his No. 1 quarterback would be obvious. Surely Brady or Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees are going to be the starters for their respective teams in 2014.
“It's a semantics thing,” Kelly said.
And it turns out Kelly is as good at semantics as he is at drawing up plays.
The best example was a victory at Chicago in Week 5 against a Bears defense that thrives on forcing turnovers. Saints coach Sean Payton defied his aggressive nature in that game, using a methodical approach filled with check-down passes and short runs.
But the Saints (9-2) have shown similar patience and resiliency in recent victories over the San Francisco 49ers and Atlanta Falcons – where they confidently stuck with their game plans even when they were trailing or winning by a slim margin.
“I think patience is part of it,” Payton said after the Saints won the turnover battle 1-0 in a 17-13 victory at Atlanta last Thursday night. “There’s an old saying, ‘It doesn’t have to be aesthetically pleasing to be effective.’ At times, that’s just being smart.”
The Saints’ approach isn’t a drastic change from years past. They’re still taking plenty of shots downfield with the NFL’s No. 2-ranked passing offense (317.3 yards per game).
But as running back Darren Sproles said, the Saints haven't been “pressing” or taking unnecessary risks, even when they’ve been down in games. And that is certainly a noticeable change from last year when the Saints and Brees seemed to be constantly pressing while playing from behind most of the year.
Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief said he believes Payton noticed things like that while he was studying the Saints closely from afar during last year’s season-long suspension.
Strief also said he believes that Payton has been flexible in his approach because of how much confidence the coach has in the Saints’ defense.
“As long as the defense is playing so good, I think there can be some patience,” Strief said. “And there can be some – I don’t want to say conservative, but I think smart football. To say, ‘Let’s play a complementary game.’
“Coach Payton, he’s very good at analyzing and kind of diagnosing what his team is good at, at that time, who’s got the hot hand, who to lean on, who to give a break. He’s been really good this year in being flexible in, ‘This is how this game is going, this is how we’re gonna play it, this is how we’re gonna win it.'”
The Saints haven’t had the balance between passing the ball and running the ball that they were striving for heading into the season. But they have steadily improved in the run game while sticking with it. Over the past month or so, Payton has been relying on veteran running back Pierre Thomas as much as ever before -- as that kind of “hot hand” that Strief was talking about.
And the Saints have done a great job all season of using Thomas and Sproles as short-range receivers as well as runners to create that offensive balance.
“I think we’ve done a very good job this year with our balance and the fact that we’ve stuck with that through the course of game,” Brees said. “I’d say it’s been very balanced. Our ability to take care of the football throughout the season has been very good. Certainly it could be better, but I’d say our overall efficiency on offense and our ability to play complementary football with our defense has been as good this year as ever.
“It has definitely been a conscious effort. It was something we talked about. You could look back at our Super Bowl year in 2009 and say that was one of our best seasons, or 2011, that was one of our best seasons offensively. What made us so effective? We were throwing the ball well, but, man, we were running the ball well, and the complement of the two was really good.”
The Saints will likely have to rely on the run game, the short passing game and weapons like Thomas, Sproles, tight end Jimmy Graham and physical receiver Marques Colston as much as ever on Monday night at Seattle – where they’ll be facing a stingy defense, an overwhelming Seattle crowd and possibly nasty weather conditions.
The conditions and the style of opponent brings to mind some of the Saints' past struggles at Chicago from 2006-08 or against San Francisco, both on the road and at home in 2011-12. Turnovers helped almost all of those games unravel.
But this time, the Saints might just have the patience to pull it off.
For one thing, the Seahawks still have their No. 1 guy – All-Pro Richard Sherman, who has emerged in recent years as one of the NFL’s elite cover men. For another thing, the Saints have seen enough from backups Byron Maxwell and Jeremy Lane to know that Seattle has the depth to make its system work with the “next man up.”
“They are able to challenge offenses with … their ability to stay on a receiver in tight, very tight coverage. Sherman, the free safety [Earl] Thomas, the strong safety [Kam] Chancellor -- they have a lot of talented players, not only in the back end. They have a young linebacker corps that runs extremely well and a front that is very physical and very active. Couple that with crowd noise and an environment that is uniquely different, you have a formula that is successful, and you’re seeing it right now.”
The Seahawks are tied for the NFL lead with 16 interceptions this season. And they’re second in the NFL in passing defense, allowing just 180.4 passing yards per game.
“Their secondary is full of a bunch of ball hawks,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. “They are guys that are around the ball all the time. Balls are getting tipped up; they have great ball skills, great awareness. That’s what their defense thrives on. …
“Sherman’s a great player, but they’ve got Earl Thomas who was an All-Pro last year. I’ve been in the Pro Bowl with him twice now, and I’m extremely impressed with him. He’s a guy who loves football. You can tell that he studies the game, studies every aspect of it. He wants to be a great player – not just a good player, a great player.”
It will be especially interesting to see how the Seahawks choose to match up against Saints tight end Jimmy Graham – whether they’ll stick with man coverage and whether they’ll use Sherman in that role.
Either way, the Seahawks still have more quality options than most teams that face the Saints.
For a Monday night game in early December, this is as good as it gets. The 10-1 Seattle Seahawks play host to the 9-2 New Orleans Saints in a game that could decide home-field advantage for the NFC playoffs.
The last time these teams faced each other was in a playoff game following the 2010 season, which Seattle won 41-36. Drew Brees passed for 404 yards and two touchdowns for the Saints, and Marshawn Lynch rushed for 131 yards, including the legendary 67-yard "Beast Quake" touchdown run in the fourth quarter for the Seahawks.
If this game is anything like that one, it will be one heck of a show.
The Seahawks will have to try to stop Brees with a reworked secondary after a week in which two Seattle cornerbacks (Walter Thurmond and Brandon Browner) ran afoul of the NFL's substance-abuse policy. Thurmond was replacing Browner as a starter due to Browner’s groin injury.
The whole suspensions issue put a damper on a big week. Now everyone will see whether the Seahawks can overcome it or whether Brees will make them pay.
ESPN.com Seahawks reporter Terry Blount and Saints reporter Mike Triplett look at the key issues entering the game:
Blount: Mike, this is a great matchup between the veteran Brees and a young quarterback who idolized him in Russell Wilson. Wilson always saw Brees as someone he could emulate, a player who, like him, wasn't tall but had a great arm and great leadership qualities. As someone who sees Brees every week, how do you compare them?
Triplett: I don’t know that much about Wilson, but I certainly see why he would choose Brees to emulate. It’s remarkable how Brees, at just 6-foot, has been able to not only succeed in the NFL but truly dominate. It would take me too long to rattle off all the reasons why Brees is so successful. For one thing, he’s as competitive and driven as any athlete I've ever been around. That shows in his work ethic both in the offseason and during the season. He also sees the field (through passing lanes since he can’t peek over the top) and anticipates things about as well as any quarterback who has ever played the game. He's not as mobile as Wilson, but he's elusive in the pocket and avoids sacks. I'd say both guys are proof that those intangible qualities count for a lot in the NFL, even if you don't have prototypical size.
I haven't seen the Seahawks' offense light up scoreboards in the few games on national TV this season, especially early in games. Can Wilson keep pace if the Saints are able to put points on the board?
Blount: Most of the time, he hasn't needed to because the defense has played so well. However, after watching him now for two seasons and seeing his growth, I believe Wilson is capable of doing whatever he needs to do to win football games. He has proven it over and over. Three times this season he has led the team to a fourth-quarter comeback, and he’s done it seven times in his brief NFL career. Wilson never is going to be the type of guy, like Brees, who puts up huge passing numbers. That’s not what they want him to do in an offense that wants to run the football with Lynch. But Wilson has demonstrated he can adjust the game plan to fit the needs of the moment. Frankly, he is one of the best I've ever seen at finding a way to win.
The Seahawks have a lot of weapons on offense, and now have added Percy Harvin to the mix. Obviously, Rob Ryan has a done a good job in getting New Orleans' defense back on track. How do you see him approaching this game against Seattle’s power running game with Lynch and a mobile quarterback in Wilson?
Triplett: I know this: Ryan will definitely have a plan. He is one of the league’s most innovative game-planners. Former player Scott Fujita described him as a “mad scientist.” We saw that quality more than ever two weeks ago when the Saints played the San Francisco 49ers. Ryan unveiled two new packages for that game, including a five-linebacker formation to corral the 49ers’ run game and the threat of the read-option. We may see the same thing this week, or maybe a new wrinkle since he likes to be unpredictable. I know the Saints’ defensive players will be amped to prove they’re just as good as the more-hyped Seahawks defense. Ends Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks, outside linebacker Junior Galette and cornerback Keenan Lewis are having breakout years, in particular.
Seattle’s defense has obviously been outstanding this year as well. How do you think they’ll hold up against the Saints’ versatile offense? Who might match up against tight end Jimmy Graham and running back/receiver threats Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas, among others?
Blount: The first thing to watch is how the backups in the secondary handle going against a wily veteran like Brees. No doubt he’s going to test Byron Maxwell and Jeremy Lane. And Graham is a major concern. The Seahawks have struggled at times this season against tight ends. In this case, they might have cornerback Richard Sherman shadow Graham as much as possible. And this is a big test for strong safety Kam Chancellor. The key for the Seahawks is the defensive line, much improved over last year, getting to Brees and taking some of the pressure off the depleted secondary.
Mike, if you had to name one area in which the Saints must outplay the Seahawks in order to win the game, what would you pick?
Triplett: Easy one: turnovers. I know you could say that about every team in every game. But it’s especially huge in this matchup. For one, the Seahawks lead the NFL with 26 takeaways. I imagine that’s why they’re second in the NFL in points scored (27.8 per game) even though they don’t have a prolific offense. The Saints need to set the pace in this game and try to force Seattle to keep up with their offense. They can’t afford to give away any freebies or short fields. And based on what we’ve seen from the Saints this season, I think they can do that. Their run game started slowly but has improved. And they showed a patient offensive approach in a Week 5 victory at Chicago and in their last two wins against San Francisco and Atlanta. The Saints have turned the ball over just 13 times, and they lead the league in average time of possession.
Terry, how do you think the Seahawks will handle this game if they don’t set the tone? To be honest, I expected a bit of a sophomore slump from Wilson and the Seahawks, since we see it so often in the NFL. Why have they been able to avoid that? And do you think there’s any risk of the pressure affecting them in a game of this magnitude?
Blount: None whatsoever, Mike. In fact, Wilson thrives on games like this. He is at his best when things seem their worst, along with playing at a high level in the most difficult situations and the high-pressure games. That character trait is what makes Wilson such an exceptional athlete. He never gets rattled. Seattle fullback Michael Robinson said Wilson has the one trait all great quarterbacks need: “A short memory.”
It is abundantly clear at this point that the most valuable player in the NFL is Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Green Bay was 5-2 when he was healthy and is 0-3-1 since he got hurt. As insane as it might seem to think one mustachioed insurance spokesperson can make such a difference, it turns out that Rodgers is the Packers. With him, they're a Super Bowl contender. Without him, they're the Jaguars.
Also clearly valuable are Kansas City linebackers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston, each of whom (like Rodgers) has spent time on this list this week, for contributions to the Chiefs' smothering defense in their case. Each had to leave Sunday's game because of injury, and, without them, the Chiefs couldn't stop Danny Woodhead. Or even hope to contain him. (Is that trademarked? And if so, is it ours? So many questions ...)
But you won't find Rodgers or Hali or Houston on the MVP Watch because you get on this list for what you actually do, not for what you theoretically would be doing if you were on the field. The Watch feels compelled to make this point on a week that sees no movement in the top five and in which candidates are hard to come by. Only five (five!!!) teams in the entire AFC are .500 or better right now. (Five!!!) And you all know the Watch's rule that prohibits players on teams with losing records from making the list.
This rule is killing Philip Rivers, who's been statistically the second-best quarterback in the league all year, but the rules are neither flexible nor arbitrary. Those who are tardy do not get fruit cup, and players on teams with losing records don't win the award. If Rivers wins next week, he'll be back in a prominent spot. Until then, he'll have to be content with this honorable mention.
As for those who actually are on the list… Well, there was no change in the No. 1 spot, but this was the first time all year that the Watch actually stopped to think about it.
For most of this year, it has been impossible to imagine anyone but Manning winning this award. But, although he's still the clear leader, there are some cracks in the corner of the juggernaut's windshield. He has now lost to Andrew Luck and Tom Brady on the road. His ankles look as though they were welded back on by Dr. Frankenstein. And, whereas the conversation the first two months was about whether he was headed for the greatest quarterback season ever, the conversation as December dawns is about whether he can win in the cold. It's tough to be great in 2013. All anybody wants to do is tear you down. But Sunday night's game was on national TV, which means everybody saw Brady play like a ruthless assassin in a 24-point comeback while Manning looked like a guy who'd rather have been home watching on his couch. Secretariat didn't stop on the home turn at Belmont to put on gloves.
Drew usually has no trouble sleeping on the plane after games, but, on the way home from Atlanta on Thursday night, he was restless. He felt bad for poor Matt Ryan. He sees Ryan twice a year and really likes the kid's work, and obviously Matt has fallen on tough times. So Drew got out his iPad mini and started drafting an email of encouragement. But he got only halfway through the first sentence because just then Jimmy Graham accidentally ripped off the door of one of the overhead compartments while trying to shut it after getting a blanket, and everyone on the Saints' team plane fell apart laughing and forgot all about the five months or whatever when the Falcons were better than the Saints were.
Funny, Atlanta was also the last place Wilson and the Seahawks played a road game. That was on Nov. 10, and they don't have another road game until they're in San Francisco on Dec. 8. Wilson was off last week, watching RedZone, blowing the last of the leaves into the street and just kind of chilling out like a regular dude does on a weekend when there's no football to play. But his plans to beat Brees on "Monday Night Football" next week and take over control of the No. 2 spot in the MVP Watch are at serious risk, what with all of his defensive backs getting suspended for various types of drug use. This game Monday could decide whether the NFC Championship Game will be played in Seattle or New Orleans, which in turn could decide whether it's Wilson or Brees playing in New Jersey two weeks later. Wilson's not sweating it because it's a home game -- and the last home game he lost was to Virginia Tech.
McCoy was as polite as he could be in rejecting Chip Kelly's efforts to put him in bubble wrap before the Eagles went on their Week 12 bye. He likes Kelly, really he does. He just wishes the guy would stop texting him every half-hour to make sure he didn't roll his ankle stepping off a curb or something like that. And truth be told, Coach hugs a little too hard sometimes. It's all good, because it comes from a place of love, but even a superstar running back needs some space every now and then.
Flash to a scene from the Panthers' meeting room last week. Newton stands up front, in a shiny gray suit, petting a hairless cat and explaining that he has managed to go back in time and steal Robert Griffin III's mojo. This has left Griffin powerless to complete a pass more than 4 yards down the field while Newton manages every week to come back and win his game by throwing to people such as Ted Ginn Jr. Newton finds this amusing, of course, but he is not smiling. Because he had one simple request, and that was to have sharks with frickin' laser beams attached to their heads! Anyway, once the ill-tempered sea bass of the league's young quarterback corps, Newton is playing as tough as anyone in the league and grinning his way through yet another breakout year.
Two Saints? Sure, two Saints. There were two Seahawks on here last week. (Hey, they didn't play. You snooze, you lose.) And if there can be two Eagles on here, pretty much anything's fair game. Brees has had a pretty awesome life to this point, but there's something like a 17 percent chance that Graham is the best thing that has ever happened to him. Could Brees be 9-2 without Graham? Possible. Brees is great. But the way he looks for Graham when he just absolutely needs someone to devastate everything in his path on the way to the end zone indicates that he'd prefer not to try. All they're asking is that Jimmy please try to leave the stadium the way he found it, if he could.
The Lions are the most disappointing team of November. Rodgers and Jay Cutler get hurt, and Detroit loses to the Steelers and the Bucs to drop a chance to run away with the NFC North. The Lions are still technically in first place if the season ended today. But the season has never ended on a Wednesday, and, because of that, there remains way too much time for the Lions to choke away a huge opportunity and miss the playoffs. If that happens, they likely will be looking for a new coach, and they're likely to have candidates knocking down their door. There's not an offensive coordinator at any level in the entire world who hasn't fantasized about what he could do with a receiver like Calvin Johnson.
Buying Foles as a legitimate NFL starting quarterback still feels a little bit like buying Mandy Patinkin as director of the CIA. "Hello, Sgt. Brody. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die." But even Chip Kelly and Michael Vick are sold now, and Foles has the job in Philadelphia because his performance has left no other choice. Sixteen touchdown passes and no interceptions. League leader in passer rating and yards per attempt. Third in Total QBR. The Eagles are 4-1 when he starts (5-1 when you add in his relief win against the Giants) and tied for first place in the NFC East. It seems inconceivable that he could keep it up ("You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."), but so far Saul's plans in Iran seem to be going better than anyone would have thought, too. So you never know.
The Watch is not kidding itself. A preseason prediction of Romo as MVP was a Hail Mary, and it was based on a parallel prediction that the Cowboys would win the NFC East with a very good record. They still might win it, but the record won't be the stuff of MVPs. So, if you want to call the Watch stubborn for shoehorning Romo onto this list every other week to try to keep making the same old point, go right ahead. The Watch can take it. The Watch has heard worse. But, for all of the heat Romo takes, he's been nails in the fourth quarter far more often than not. Choking the clock to death and beating the Giants in the biggest game of the season so far for Dallas won't matter much if the Cowboys lose a Week 17 division title game for the third year in a row. But this is the Week 13 MVP Watch, and that was some smooth, clutch quarterbacking.
It's been a rough year for Brady. Wes Welker is in Denver; Aaron Hernandez is in jail; and Rob Gronkowski sat out the first month and a half while his broken arm healed. Brady's numbers are so far down that his coach won't even let him have the ball when he wins the coin toss in overtime! So yeah, putting Foles on here for a second week in a row while Brady sat in timeout would have felt like piling on. Brady is 22nd in the league in completion percentage, 18th in passer rating and 16th in Total QBR. But he's also 8-3 and just came back from 24 points down to beat Manning on a night when it was too cold and windy to throw or catch the ball. These kinds of things help a scorned Watch forgive. Welcome back, Tommy. It wasn't the same around here without you.
It was just the second time in their previous nine trips to Lambeau Field that the Vikings had done anything other than lose to the Packers. The only other time was in 2009 -- not coincidentally, the only other time when the Vikings could make a convincing argument they entered the game with a quarterback playing as well as or better than his Green Bay counterpart. But Sunday's advantage was caused mostly by Aaron Rodgers' absence, which is a temporary problem for the Packers. And the stark difference in their rivals -- NFC North standard-bearer with Rodgers, middling team without him -- should crystallize why the Vikings will likely continue searching for a quarterback this offseason.
Look at the Packers. With Rodgers, they were 5-2, despite missing receiver Randall Cobb, linebacker Clay Matthews, tight end Jermichael Finley, running back Eddie Lacy, cornerback Sam Shields, cornerback Casey Hayward and safety Morgan Burnett for parts of the season. Without him, the Packers are 0-3-1, having lost to a team that started 0-6 (the Giants) and tied the team they'd dominated at home (the Vikings). They went 26-6 in the previous two regular seasons despite having a pass defense ranked 32nd and 22nd in yards allowed, and they won a Super Bowl with him despite putting 15 players on injured reserve and barely running for an average of 100 yards a game in 2010.
And it's not just the Packers who have used great quarterbacks to cover up flaws. The 2011 New England Patriots rebuilt their group of skill position players around Tom Brady, allowed the second-most yards in the league and still went to the Super Bowl. The team they lost to, the New York Giants, had the league's worst rushing offense, its eighth-worst scoring defense and Eli Manning. His older brother Peyton is currently quarterbacking a 9-2 Denver Broncos team that has allowed the seventh-most points and yards in the league, and made his two Super Bowl appearances in Indianapolis with teams that finished 18th and 31st in the league in rushing offense. His loss in the 2010 Super Bowl came to a New Orleans Saints team that had the league's seventh-worst rushing attack, its 13th-worst defense and rode Drew Brees past Brett Favre and Manning to a championship.
So while we can talk about incremental improvements from Christian Ponder and discuss the Vikings' myriad defensive problems -- both of which we've done here -- the scale of quarterbacking championship teams need is drastically different from what the Vikings have. Unless Ponder or Josh Freeman somehow turns into that kind of quarterback, the Vikings in all likelihood will head out on another search for one. I'm convinced their decision-makers know the hunt for a quarterback isn't over until they've unearthed one who can be elite.
The power of that kind of a player should have been obvious in all the years Vikings fans have watched Rodgers and Favre burn them in Green Bay. And it should have been even more clear by the absence of a great quarterback on Sunday.
ATLANTA -- Three wins in 12 days. An impressive feat, no doubt, for the New Orleans Saints, who scratched out a 17-13 victory on the road against the rival Atlanta Falcons on Thursday night.
Now comes the real test.
A week from Monday night, the 9-2 Saints visit the 10-1 Seattle Seahawks. The NFC's No. 1 seed is on the line -- not to mention the Saints' reputation as a team that struggles outdoors on the road against physical opponents.
"Listen, they're all big. But obviously we understand the implications of this one," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said after Thursday's victory. "'Monday Night Football' at Seattle, it doesn't get any better than that."
The Saints really shouldn't have to prove anything at this point. Not after what they just accomplished over the past 12 days: routing the Dallas Cowboys at home in record fashion, surviving a battle against the nemesis San Francisco 49ers at home, then avoiding the hangover Thursday night at Atlanta -- where the Falcons certainly didn't play like a 2-9 team.
But that's what we're all going to demand of the Saints, anyway -- relentlessly over the next 10 days -- as the hype machine gets kicked into overdrive. The media will debate whether the Saints can win this type of game against this type of opponent. The public will wonder.
And truth be told, the Saints are eager to see how they handle the challenge, as well. The one thing they haven't accomplished in the Sean Payton-Brees era is winning a road playoff game. So they're going to have to win this game at Seattle now to earn home-field advantage in the playoffs.
Or else they'll likely need to go back and try again in January.
"They're great questions, and these are things we've got to continue to answer the bell on," said Saints safety Roman Harper, who was on the field the last time the Saints played Seattle -- an infamous playoff loss after the 2010 season that ended when no one could tackle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch. "You know, it's a long season, and we've just got to continue to come on. We've got to meet all these challenges that we're gonna get."
"Yep, yep, all those things," Brees said when the list of inevitable storylines was rattled off to him. "You know, here's the thing: The two times that we've gone to Seattle, it's been 'Sunday Night Football' [in 2007] and the playoffs [in 2010]. And now 'Monday Night Football.' So we've played there when the game has been in prime time, it's been important, it's been meaningful. So we're no strangers to the atmosphere.
"We know that 12th Man atmosphere. We try to have that atmosphere in the dome. So we know what it's like to have that home-field advantage. We know what we're walking into."
The Saints offense actually has played great in its previous two trips to Seattle -- despite the fact that CenturyLink Field has earned a reputation as one of the NFL's most overwhelming environments for visiting opponents. The Saints lost that 2010 playoff game 41-36. They won the '07 game 28-17.
But the Seahawks defense has evolved into a dominant unit since then -- one that ranks second in the NFL in yards allowed (293.3 per game), third in points allowed (16.3 per game) and first, according to ESPN Stats & Information, in putting quarterbacks under duress.
The Saints need to prove they can continue to play the kind of patient-yet-opportunistic offense they flashed at Chicago earlier this season, against San Francisco two weeks ago and again in Thursday night's win (when they won the turnover battle 1-0 and ran out most of the clock with two late first downs).
The Saints' run game, which had been the team's biggest weakness early this year, has been coming on strong.
"We really put our foot in the ground and said, 'Hey, enough is enough. Let's get this ground game going and let's be more of a balanced team.'" said Saints running back Pierre Thomas, who has been playing so well lately that he's at risk of losing his label of one of the league's most underrated weapons.
Thomas ran the ball 10 times for 73 yards and caught five passes for 57 yards. He and tight end Jimmy Graham (five catches for 100 yards and a touchdown) were the Saints' go-to guys on offense -- which will likely remain the case at Seattle.
Thomas said the Saints "definitely" have to prove they can bring that same balance against the Seahawks.
"You know, we showed in '09 that we can win on the road," Thomas said of the Saints' Super Bowl-winning season. “We've got to have that same mindset and that same determination to go out and say, 'Hey, great teams do win on the road, and we are a great team.'"
On the flip side, the Seahawks will have to deal with a Saints defense that has become much feistier than in recent years. The Saints defensive front was once again the driving force behind their win over Atlanta.
Although the Falcons ran the ball well early, then consistently moved the ball down the field with short passes throughout the game, the Saints repeatedly clamped down. The Falcons' only touchdown came on their opening drive, and they were shut out completely in the second half.
Defensive end Keyunta Dawson forced a critical fumble early in the fourth quarter when Atlanta got inside the red zone. Then, end Cameron Jordan came up with a big sack later in the fourth quarter after Atlanta had reached New Orleans' 29-yard line.
Jordan, who might have punched his ticket to his first Pro Bowl on Thursday night, had 2.5 of the Saints' five sacks.
The Saints will need that physicality up front against a Seattle team that ranks third in the NFL with 147.9 rushing yards per game, still led by the punishing Lynch. And oh, by the way, second-year Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson is pretty clutch himself.
"We're going to enjoy this tonight. I think everyone appreciates a few extra days off, and [the Seahawks are] going to be coming off a bye as well," Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief said. "It's going to be a tough game. And those are the games that you'll remember forever."
ATLANTA -- A few thoughts on the New Orleans Saints' 17-13 win over the Atlanta Falcons, which moved them to 9-2 on the season.
What it means: This was survival, plain and simple. The Saints didn't necessarily look “sloppy” or “sluggish” on this Thursday night as they did in the same situation last year. Their offense and defense came up with plenty of big plays throughout the night. But New Orleans obviously had to slug this one out against a Falcons team that came out with more energy to start the game.
The Saints will gladly take it. From the day the schedule first came out, they knew this short-week game on the road at Atlanta would be one of the toughest tests of the entire season. And they'll take the win any way they could get it.
Stock watch: It didn't seem like defensive end Cameron Jordan's stock could get much higher during this breakout season. But he was the biggest difference-maker on the field with 2.5 sacks on a night when the Saints needed him badly. Jordan's final sack stalled a Falcons drive after Atlanta had crossed midfield late in the fourth quarter. Jordan now has 9.5 sacks this year and should have punched his ticket to the Pro Bowl on Thursday night.
Go-to guys: In the process, Jordan stole top billing away from two Saints offensive standouts, tight end Jimmy Graham and running back Pierre Thomas. Graham caught five passes for 100 yards, including a 44-yard touchdown (when he burned safety William Moore on a double move, then dragged him into the end zone the final few yards). This was Graham's sixth 100-yard game of the season, which is tied for most in franchise history, tied for most by any tight end in NFL history and tied for most by any player in the league this year.
The underrated Thomas, meanwhile, was a go-to guy all night with 10 carries for 73 yards and five catches for 57 yards. In the process, he moved into fourth place on the Saints' all-time rushing list with 3,460 yards, moving ahead of Rueben Mayes and Chuck Muncie.
Over the Moon: Saints quarterback Drew Brees was more solid than spectacular, but he was certainly good enough to earn the win. He completed 23 of 33 passes for 278 yards and two touchdowns. In the process, Brees passed Warren Moon for fifth place on the NFL's all-time passing yardage list. He now has 49,566 yards in his 13-year career.
Up next: The big one! The Saints will take their best shot at the No. 1 seed in the NFC with a Monday night showdown at the Seattle Seahawks (10-1). Seattle is always a tough place to play -- especially on a Monday night in early December when weather could be a factor. Not to mention, the physical Seahawks running game and monster defense. Should be a great clash of styles.
"You feel it the moment you step foot on the field," Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan said. "You feel it from the fans, you feel it from the other payers, you feel it from every which way.
"Whatever their record is, it doesn't matter when we get into the building 'cause it's still an elite football team versus an elite football team."
Jordan and Saints center Brian de la Puente, both of whom played college football at Cal, compared the Saints-Falcons rivalry to the Cal-Stanford rivalry.
"You know in college when you play your rival game, it doesn't really matter what everybody's record is. And I think this game is similar," de la Puente said. "When I was in college, Stanford was not the perennial powerhouse they are today. But it was the 'Big Game,' and it didn't matter. It was gonna be a close one, and it was gonna be a hard fight because there was a lot of pride on the line. And I think it's similar with Atlanta and the Saints."
Both players also insisted that no game would be a trap game anyway, because they have stuck to the mantra this year that every game is the most important because it's the next one.
As Saints quarterback Drew Brees likes to say, they try to treat every game like a "one-game season."
Brees is such an intense competitor who doesn't usually need any extra reason to get motivated. But he certainly hasn't forgotten what happened the last time he played in the Georgia Dome -- on a Thursday night game in Week 13 last year. Brees threw five interceptions in a 23-13 loss, arguably the worst performance of his tenure with New Orleans.
Brees said that memory was more prevalent when the Saints hosted the Falcons in Week 1 of this season, though, when the Saints beat Atlanta 23-17.
"[I felt that] playing them the first game of the season, just knowing the last time we played that wasn't a good day," Brees said. "You want to kind of get past that and get on to better things. I feel like we're past that. We've played enough games in that stadium, knowing the types of games they've always been."
The Falcons fought the Saints down to the last play in that Week 1 loss until the Saints broke up a game-winning pass attempt in the end zone.
Since, the Falcons have obviously fallen on hard times -- especially since losing their top offensive weapon Julio Jones to a season-ending foot injury. Atlanta has lost four straight games heading into this rematch.
Asked if he's shocked to see the Falcons at 2-8, Saints coach Sean Payton said he wouldn't use that exact word.
"I think in our league there is such a fine line that you deal with, especially when it comes to injuries," Payton said. "I know how difficult it is to win in our league, and I know how often these games come down to the final plays, making a play in the end and having a chance to win a game. I think when you add the injury element to it, it obviously is that much more difficult."
1:00 PM ET Indianapolis Cincinnati 1:00 PM ET Atlanta Green Bay 1:00 PM ET Cleveland New England 1:00 PM ET Oakland New York 1:00 PM ET Detroit Philadelphia 1:00 PM ET Miami Pittsburgh 1:00 PM ET Buffalo Tampa Bay 1:00 PM ET Kansas City Washington 1:00 PM ET Minnesota Baltimore 4:05 PM ET Tennessee Denver 4:25 PM ET St. Louis Arizona 4:25 PM ET New York San Diego 4:25 PM ET Seattle San Francisco 8:30 PM ET Carolina New Orleans