If you look strictly at the opponents' records, the third quarter was supposed to be the easiest four-game stretch of the season.
Games, as everyone knows, are not played on paper. When you are perceived by many to be the best team in the league, everyone gives you their best shot.
For teams with losing records and no play-off hopes, a chance to take down an undefeated team is their Super Bowl.
St. Louis and Washington both took New Orleans down to the wire with the Redskins forcing overtime.
The Saints' best performance came against the Patriots during which coach Belichick waved the white flag with more than five minutes left in the game.
In between all of this, they blew out division rival Tampa Bay on the road by 31 points.
In a matter of four games since the halfway mark, the Saints turned a three-game division lead into a title clincher.
New Orleans currently leads the Atlanta Falcons by six games with just four to go.
The grades in this report card reflect performance only in weeks 10-13.
Comments: The mark of a good coach is one who has his team prepared better than the opposing team and has them ready to face any obstacle. A good coach is able to make adjustments when necessary, but also knows when to stick with the original game plan.
Head coach Sean Payton and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams thoroughly out-coached Bill Belichick, who has set the gold standard for preparation this decade, in their head-to-head matchup in week 12.
In his previous three season as head coach, Payton had a number of, "what the heck?
Those moments are becoming few and far between this season.
Comments: Except for one sack, Drew Brees could not have played a better game than he did against the Patriots.
Take a look at some of these numbers from that game:
- Five touchdowns (to five different players)
- 78.3 completion percentage
- 16.1 yards per attempt
- 158.3 quarterback rating (which is considered a perfect rating)
In the past four games (really six), Brees has not had a completion percentage under 65.
He has not had a fumble this quarter. He had five in a three game stretch in the middle of the year.
Total numbers in the past four games: 90-127 (71 percent), 1,200 yards, 12 touchdowns, and three interceptions.
Receiver Robert Meachem has been phenomenal recently.
He has 16 catches and six touchdowns in his last four games. Meachem set a career high for receptions (eight) and yards (142) against Washington.
Comments: Despite the strong passing attack, the Saints continue to remain committed to the run.
They crushed St. Louis for over 200 yards rushing, and rolled over Tampa Bay for 187 yards on the ground.
New Orleans gained just 113 yards running the football against New England, but a close look at the stat sheet tells the whole story.
The Saints had just 50 plays against the Patriots, but struck with so many long pass plays that they never had a chance to grind it out on the ground. Yet, they still managed 4.3 yards per carry.
Only Washington gave New Orleans trouble running the ball as the Saints averaged a measly 2.3 yards a pop.
The only concern I'd have with the running game for the rest of the year is if they play the Minnesota Vikings in the play-offs. The Vikings have a defensive line that's just as good as Washington's and can force New Orleans to adjust their offensive game plan.
Comments: Injuries in the secondary make this the toughest section to fairly grade.
Starting corner Jabari Greer has not played this quarter, while Tracy Porter, the opposite starter at corner, was injured during the Rams' game and has not played since.
Nickelback Randall Gay was injured early against the Patriots and did not play this past week against the Redskins.
Rookie corner Malcolm Jenkins, this year's first round pick, played lights out while covering slot receiver extraordinaire Wes Welker, but struggled on the wet field against Washington's less-heralded receivers.
The Saints also signed Chris McAlister, but have since released him.
Of course, the best pass coverage is worthless if there is no pass rush up front.
The pass rush made its mark in weeks 10-12, registering eight sacks. However, it made very little impact on Washington's Jason Campbell, whose jersey stayed clean all day.
It is not a coincidence that Campbell was able to pass for 367 yards and three touchdowns on a day in which he didn't get touched.
Grade : B
Comments: There is nothing outstanding about the Saints' run defense. Of course, it doesn't help that they are decimated by injuries at linebacker.
Scott Fujita has been in an out of the lineup lately (mostly out), Marvin Mitchell did not play against Washington, and now JoLonn Dunbar is on injured reserved.
The return of Sedrick Ellis has helped a lot. Saints fans have to hope that he can stay healthy for the remainder of the season.
In four games without Ellis, the Saints have given up 151.25 rushing yards per game. In eight games with him in the lineup, they are allowing just 95.25 rushing yards per game.
Comments : While rookie punter/kickoff specialist Thomas Morstead has still been solid, the special teams' star is now Courtney Roby.
Roby has had several big kickoff returns, including a 97-yard touchdown to break a 14-14 tie with the Rams. Roby is also a key member of the coverage units as he has 10 special teams tackles.
The Saints' paltry punt return average of 3.4 yards ranks 31st in the NFL.
New Orleans demoted placekicker John Carney this past week and elevated Garrett Hartley to the active roster.
Carney had missed three field goals inside 40 yards and had several more close calls. Hartley responded by hitting four field goals, including the game-winner against the Redskins.
Hartley's consistency and leg strength should serve the Saints well as they head towards the play-offs.
Grade : B
Comments : This season has already seen a lot of franchise firsts.
This is the first 12-0 start.
The is the first time they have won 12 games since 1992. They have never won 13.
The is the first division title and play-off berth since 2006.
Three of the last four games have been on the road, and while they haven't all been pretty, they've all ended with the Saints on top.
As the Saints gear up for the final stretch of the regular season, they will be focusing on clinching home-field advantage and perhaps perfection.
I'm sure Saints fans would have liked to see their team win a little bit easier in St. Louis and Washington, but the close games will make the Saints stronger in the long run.
It's a mark of champion when you can get a victory in the NFL with you don't have your A-game.
While the Saints have shown some vulnerability in recent games, they have also shown how dominating they can be.
The rest of the NFL better be on high alert.
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