Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Early losses help New Orleans Saints keep perspective after 3 wins in last 4 games

A simple glance at the New Orleans Saints

schedule could reveal a few truths that seemed unthinkable as recent as two weeks ago.

Then, coming off a dismal showing against the Philadelphia Eagles that dropped the Saints to 1-4, hope for a successful season appeared dim. But now, after successive wins for the first time in roughly a year, the Saints have the look of a team that could move into the thick of things as the season nears the midway point.

Just don't expect any players to make any pronouncements.

"At 3-4, we don't need to be thinking about the playoffs," Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro said Monday. "We need to be thinking about beating the New York Giants this weekend."

This is true. And probably best for anybody with a locker stall inside the Saints' facility on Airline Drive.

As for anybody else, a glance at a schedule that includes only three teams with winning records over the final nine games -- starting with the 4-3 Giants on Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome -- provides some reason for optimism.

The Saints have won their last two games against the Atlanta Falcons and Indianapolis Colts with big plays on special teams along with six takeaways and nine sacks on defense.

Two of the three takeaways Sunday -- an interception by rookie linebacker Stephone Anthony and a fumble forced by David Hawthorne on a kickoff return -- put Drew Brees and the offense in immediate scoring position as they built a sizable lead in a 27-21 victory against the Colts.

A fake field goal pass by Luke McCown to Benjamin Watson set up another score, and the Saints' resurgent run game did the rest, as Mark Ingram posted gains of 44, 35 and 20 yards on a variety of runs to the outside and up the middle as he averaged 10.2 yards on 14 carries (143 yards total).

Those complementary elements appeared more in the last two games than they did in most of the first five.

"We're playing a lot looser," Saints center Max Unger said. "It's one of those things where you just kind of have to trust your game plan."

Yet for all the positives, a message from coach Sean Payton and his staff must remain: "We have to be brutally honest with, 'Hey, here are some things we're doing well, this gets me fired up, and here are some things we have to correct.'"

Among those are penalties, of which the Saints committed 12 for 100 yards.

"We're playing better on D," Vaccaro said. "We're getting more opportunistic, getting takeaways, getting sacks. At the same time, we're still letting the opposition offenses put up points. We got to stop that. We got to help our offense out and try to keep that to a minimum."

The Saints a year ago stood at 3-4 after they beat the Green Bay Packers in a Sunday night home game, and moved to 4-4 four nights later on the road against the Carolina Panthers.

Five losses in the next seven games dumped the Saints out of playoff contention with one game to play.

Several players insist the 2015 Saints bear little resemblance to the 2014 version, a claim supported by the high roster turnover during the offseason.

The Saints' remaining schedule includes five games against teams with fewer wins than the Saints, with the Tennessee Titans (1-5), Detroit Lions (1-6) and Jacksonville Jaguars (2-5) at home, and the Houston Texans (2-5) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-4) on the road.

Also on the schedule is a road game against Washington Redskins (3-4) along with games the NFC South-leading Carolina Panthers (6-0, at home) and Falcons (6-1, on the road).

With a long-range goal of making the playoffs, the Saints will keep a short-term focus, starting with the Giants and their plus-10 turnover ratio that leads the NFL.

"Our goal is to win games every week," Unger said. "I think if we can do that, obviously our goals will be there at the end of the season."

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