For a brief time Sunday afternoon, the buzz around what was happening inside the Superdome focused on Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff.
He deserved your eyes and attention after an opening half in which he carved up the New Orleans Saints defense. Goff finished those first two quarters with 157 yards through the air and three passing touchdowns.
A first overall pick was beginning to look like a first-overall pick. And more importantly, the Rams offense could grasp onto something it hadn’t sniffed for a long, long time: hope.
Then your gaze was swiftly redirected to where it belonged. Saints quarterback Drew Brees has a way of doing that. He either grabs your attention right away after kickoff as footballs begin to fly, or he startles you with a sudden offensive eruption.
He did the latter as the Saints trounced the Rams soundly, winning 49-21. Brees scored a victory off the field too when the game ended with friendly verbal sideline fire. Rams head coach Jeff Fisher and his defensive coordinator Gregg Williams exchanged some angry words as the scoreboard went from headache to throbbing migraine.
The internet had jokes because, as you surely recall, Williams was carrying just a bit of baggage when he left the Saints after his role in the Bountygate scandal.
Maybe someone offered Gregg Williams a few hundred bucks to take out Jeff Fisher's coaching career.— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) November 27, 2016
Williams, the former Saints defensive coordinator, was suspended for the 2012 season. Saints head coach Sean Payton missed that year too. Payton didn’t orchestrate the bounty program, but in the league’s eyes, he failed to speak up and stop it as the head coach. He became the captain who had to go down with his disgraced ship.
So as Brees continued to throw more logs onto the burning second-half inferno that was the Rams defense, it became impossible not to detect the strong smell of revenge permeating through the air.
Payton didn't stop strutting in front of Williams when up by 21 points in the fourth quarter. With the game easily in hand, he pulled the trigger on a gimmick trick play. Brees lateraled to wide receiver Willie Snead, who then connected with the embarrassingly open Tim Hightower.
The running back then jogged for an easy 50-yard touchdown. Snead became the first receiver in Saints franchise history to throw a touchdown pass, according to NFL Research. In the process, he also gave everyone a hopefully unnecessary reminder: Listen to mom because she’s wise and always right.
Willie Snead talking about his mom: "She's the one who told me not to lose my throwing arm." Saints WR played QB for three years in HS.— Josh Katzenstein (@jkatzenstein) November 27, 2016
The Williams-Payton subplot Sunday afternoon satisfied your inner craving for vengeance. But the real storyline reflected a common refrain for Saints football.
Brees and his nitro-fueled offense had to overcome defensive bumbling from one of the league’s worst units. The sort of unit that gave up 21 first-half points to an offense led by a quarterback making his second start. Goff averaged 7.9 yards per attempt in that half, which was a dramatic improvement over his 4.3 yards in Week 11.
However, when you look first at the staggering fireworks Brees and company lit Sunday and then glance at the Saints’ remaining schedule, it’s fair to wonder if the playoffs are more than some far-off mirage. In fact, it may not take much wishful dreaming this holiday season for the Saints to continue on after being the league’s December darlings.
Now I know what your reaction probably was there. A scoff at best, and a computer-ruining spit take at worst (sorry?). But let’s consider a couple indisputable facts.
Fact: The Saints offense has been pulverizing opponents and posted 555 yards on the Rams while averaging a comical 7.8 yards per play. And despite its blundering awfulness Sunday, the Rams defense actually hasn’t been that bad overall in 2016, especially not lately. Prior to Week 12, Los Angeles had given up an average of 12.5 points over its last four games. Then the Rams allowed seven touchdowns to New Orleans.
Fact: Brees is still an ageless spectacle at nearly 38 years old (his birthday is in early January). He threw for 310 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions against the Rams. He’s now thrown 20 touchdown passes and only five interceptions in the seven games since the Saints’ Week 5 bye.
Brees has also completed 70-plus percent of his passes in a career high six straight games, according to Christopher Dabe of NOLA.com. And perhaps most impressively, he's now one of only two quarterbacks to throw four-plus touchdown passes in a game, well, a lot:
Drew Brees joins Peyton Manning (35) as the only players in NFL history to throw 4+ TD in at least 30 career games. pic.twitter.com/EWR1qhaZ5q— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) November 27, 2016
But we’re all well versed in singing the Saints’ offensive praises while also putting clothespins on our nose to watch their defense. Which is why this fact is the most important of all for their playoff-push hopes: The Saints close out their season with games against some teams that nearly mirror their defensive deficiencies.
New Orleans is now 5-6 and sits 2.5 games back of the second Wild Card spot currently held by the Washington Redskins. They’ve won three of their last five games, and the two losses during that stretch came by a combined five points.
Of their remaining five games, three are on the road, which isn’t exactly inviting for a team that steamrolls at the Superdome. But most of the opponents are exactly the kind of teams the Saints can feast on.
New Orleans needs to win games in shootout fashion. They can do that against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a division foe New Orleans still has to face twice. The Bucs came into Week 12 with the league’s 25th-ranked pass defense, giving up the second-worst yards per pass attempt (8.1).
The softest landing spots for the Saints come against leaky (or gushing) secondaries. That certainly describes the Atlanta Falcons and their defensive backfield that's been thumped for a league worst 282.0 passing yards allowed per game. The Saints close out their season against Atlanta with a Week 17 game that could be meaningful.
And next on deck in Week 13 is a Detroit Lions defense that’s given up a league worst opposing passer rating of 106.4. The Lions are also tied for the fourth-most passing touchdowns allowed (22).
The road to the playoffs still meanders up a steadily rising hill. There’s a path ahead for backdoor postseason entry though.
It won’t be easy, because nothing ever is when a team is still under .500 heading into December. But it’s possible, which is all the Saints could have asked for after starting out 0-3.