The New Orleans Saints are 8-2 after Sunday’s 23-20 win over the San Francisco 49ers. They’re one game ahead of the Carolina Panthers in the loss column and in sole possession of the NFC South lead. Only the Seattle Seahawks have a better record in the NFC.
But do we really look at the Saints as a team that can win the big game?
A quick glance at New Orleans’ schedule shows wins over lowly teams like the Atlanta Falcons, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and even the Miami Dolphins. Take out Sunday’s win against the 49ers, and the Saints' previous seven wins have come against opponents that currently sit at a combined 30-41.
|Atlanta Falcons||W, 23-17||2-8|
|at Tampa Bay Buccaneers||W, 16-1||2-8|
|Arizona Cardinals||W, 31-7||6-4|
|Miami Dolphins||W, 38-17||5-5|
|at Chicago Bears||W, 26-18||6-4|
|at New England Patriots||L, 30-27||7-2|
|Buffalo Bills||W, 35-17||4-7|
|at New York Jets||L, 26-20||5-5|
|Dallas Cowboys||W, 49-17||5-5|
|San Francisco 49ers||W, 23-20||6-4|
Sure, the Saints' Week 5 win over the Chicago Bears was a quality win. While the Week 10 win over the Dallas Cowboys was an absolute offensive masterpiece by head coach Sean Payton, beating Dallas isn’t necessarily a notch-in-the-bed-post statement, even if it was a shining moment for defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to hand the Cowboys their comeuppance for letting him go.
But that was about it in regard to wins you can brag about. And the Saints' two losses were rough because they came in moments that many would call “big.”
When New Orleans lost to the New England Patriots 30-27 in Week 6, the Saints' ability to win big games on the road came into question. Even though their record doesn’t show it at 5-5, when two weeks later the Saints traveled to play the New York Jets, there was a feeling of monumental circumstance involved. It was more than just the brother-versus-brother Ryan family dispute.
The Saints have dropped, arguably, the two biggest games on the schedule thus far.
That changed Sunday when Garrett Hartley kicked a 31-yard field goal as time expired to give the Saints a three-point victory. New Orleans finally had that signature win, and it came against the 49ers, a team that knocked them out of the 2011 playoffs and knocked them around last season when the Saints were suffering.
Ryan’s defense stacked the box and took away one of the biggest reasons San Francisco had won the last two meetings against the Saints: running back Frank Gore.
Gore had just 48 yards rushing Sunday on 13 carries. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick added 25 yards on the ground. The New Orleans defense played hard against the run and forced Kaepernick to win with his arm. That didn’t happen.
In addition to stopping the run, Ryan dialed up pressure on Kaepernick, which is quite difficult to do to such a mobile quarterback. Akiem Hicks, Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette all recorded sacks, and the defense spent a lot of time flustering Kaepernick with its pass rush.
On offense, the Saints were the Saints. Quarterback Drew Brees was 30-of-43 with 305 yards and a touchdown pass. Tight end Jimmy Graham and wide receiver Marques Colston led the receiving corps in targets, and Brees hit a number of different guys to keep San Francisco guessing.
Kenny Stills, who had been on fire of late, was quiet with one catch Sunday. But Robert Meachem stepped in to grab two passes for 78 yards. That goes to show that on any given Sunday, the Saints can strike with any weapon among their receiving corps.
For the second week in a row, the running game was a weapon. New Orleans only ran the ball 22 times, but each of the three main running backs averaged more than four yards per carry. Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles teamed up to move the ball effectively on the ground. The Saints finished just shy of 100 yards on the ground with 92.
At 8-2, however, the Saints still have a lot to prove. The next five weeks will give them that chance.
New Orleans must travel to Atlanta on Thursday on short rest to play the Falcons, who don’t pose much of a threat in their current state, but anything can happen in this heated rivalry. Then the Saints travel to Seattle and face the NFC’s top-seeded Seahawks.
The Saints don’t play as well on the road as they do in the Superdome. If they can return home after Week 13 with a 10-2 record, no one will question whether or not New Orleans can win the big game or if it can win on the road. The only question will be if the Saints can hold off the Carolina Panthers.
New Orleans is a solid playoff-bound team. But the success it's seen in the postseason has been tied too frequently to home-field advantage. The Saints' last two playoff losses have come on the road. When they won it all in 2009, they played in the Superdome all the way until the Super Bowl.
Sunday’s win over the 49ers shows New Orleans is taking steps to being able to beat anyone, anywhere. But the confidence to truly make that statement won’t come unless the Saints beat Seattle and Carolina on the road.
If that happens, the Saints won’t have to win a road playoff game, even though they could.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.