There's been plenty written and said over the past few weeks about the offensive heroics of Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens. There's been no shortage of columns and conversations about the defensive dominance of Nick Bosa and the San Francisco 49ers. Both teams have been the darlings of the NFL in 2019.
However, most of what's been said about the New Orleans Saints came during Teddy Bridgewater's impressive run under center while Drew Brees was sidelined by a thumb injury earlier in the year. Since Brees returned, the Saints have faded from the national spotlight.
The spotlight may have faded, but the Saints haven't.
After gutting out a 34-31 win over the Carolina Panthers, they sit at 9-2 and are in complete control of the NFC South. And while folks have debated whether the Ravens or 49ers are the best team in the league, the Saints have quietly been building the NFL's most balanced and dangerous contender.
In fairness, much like in last week's win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Saints didn't exactly pile up style points against the Panthers.
After racing out to an early 14-0 lead, the Saints just couldn't put them away. They hurt themselves with a dozen penalties for 123 yards. And had Panthers kicker Joey Slye not pushed a 28-yard field-goal attempt wide right with two minutes left, they may well have been stunned at home for the second time in three weeks.
But Slye missed the kick, and Brees made Carolina pay for it, leading New Orleans on an 11-play, 65-yard drive that culminated in the game-winning field goal.
The Saints did what good teams do: They figured out a way to win while not playing at their best.
Brees told reporters earlier this week, per the team's official website, that while he's aware New Orleans hasn't been firing on all cylinders, he's confident the team can improve down the stretch:
"I just think we can execute. We can continue to execute better offensively. I know defense just from talking to the guys, they have things they’re working on. Even coming off a game like that where you win convincingly and you do some good things on both sides of the ball, I think there's still a lot more to be desired."
If that's the case, the Saints are more than capable of representing the NFC in Miami at Super Bowl LIV.
Yes, they entered Week 12 a so-so 14th in total offense and 13th in scoring offense. But those rankings come with the caveat that the team has played five-plus games with a backup quarterback calling the shots. Over the last two weeks, the Saints have averaged 34 points and 372.5 yards of total offense per game.
It's not hard to see why. They're as stacked offensively as any team in the NFL.
In Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray, New Orleans has one of the best one-two punches at running back in the game. The duo combined to average 6.6 yards per carry against the Panthers on Sunday, and Kamara pitched in another 48 yards on nine catches, including the grab that set up Wil Lutz's game-winner.
Wide receiver Michael Thomas is having another phenomenal season, establishing himself as the gold standard at wide receiver.
He entered Week 12 leading the league in catches and yards by a wide margin, and that's not going to change after he reeled in 10 passes for 101 yards on Sunday. Tight end Jared Cook has also been hot of late; he posted a 6/99/1 line against the Panthers and has a touchdown in four of his last five games.
Then there's that Brees fellow, who I hear is pretty good.
The 40-year-old's days of annually throwing for over 5,000 yards may be over, and he's still likely not quite 100 percent after surgery on his throwing hand. But the future Hall of Famer is getting closer to full health by the week, and he's still completing over 75 percent of his passes with a passer rating in triple digits.
Throw in an offensive line that ranks inside the top 10 in pass protection and leads the NFL in run blocking, per Football Outsiders, and you have a unit that compares favorably to any offense in the NFC.
The Saints aren't one-dimensional, either. Sunday's win over Carolina admittedly wasn't their finest effort of the season, but their defense came into Week 12 sixth in total defense and 12th in scoring defense. New Orleans has amassed 31 sacks and 15 takeaways for the year.
Cameron Jordan is one of the most underrated defensive ends in the game. Ditto for outside linebacker Demario Davis, who had 11 total tackles and a sack against the Panthers. A young secondary filled with former Ohio State Buckeyes and headlined by cornerback Marshon Lattimore (who missed Week 12 with a hamstring injury) has surrendered fewer than 240 yards per game through the air.
The Saints haven't been as explosive as the Dallas Cowboys or Seattle Seahawks. And their defense hasn't been as stifling as San Francisco's. But the Saints have more balance than those teams. There just isn't an area—from the quarterback to the kicker—that can be pointed to as a glaring weakness.
Granted, much hinges on the Saints playing up to their potential. But this is a veteran team that all but has the NFC South wrapped up. Assuming they get past Atlanta on Thanksgiving (which isn't a sure bet after the Falcons pasted them in Week 10), they will host the 49ers in Week 14 with the No. 1 seed in the NFC potentially on the line.
It's not difficult to imagine a scenario in which a Saints team that didn't have its starting quarterback for over a month could wind up with home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs—that the road to Miami on that side of the bracket could go right through the Superdome.
And if that's the case, the Saints will be that much more dangerous than they already are.