After going winless in September, the New Orleans Saints have clawed back to within one victory of a .500 record, and what looked like a lost season without suspended coach Sean Payton has turned into something with more promise.
If the Saints win at struggling Oakland on Sunday, they will be 5-5 and one game out of the final wild card spot in the NFC. A huge 31-27 win against previously unbeaten Atlanta has left them in position to at least make a run at the playoffs.
"It was such a hole, and now that we're starting to dig our way out of it, we're starting to see some light," Saints cornerback Jabari Greer said. "When we were 0-4, it was doomsday. Nobody believed that we had what it took to be a good team. Everybody had written us off."
Greer's performance against the Falcons symbolized the arc of the season for the Saints. Burned earlier for two big gains by Atlanta's receivers, he dove in the end zone to break up a fourth-and-goal pass to Roddy White in the final two minutes.
Beaten in a variety of ways through their first four games, the Saints have won four of their last five by making plays confident teams make in critical situations.
"This win that we had yesterday was a direct result of how hard this team has worked from Day 1, when I wasn't here," said interim coach Joe Vitt, who improved to 2-1 since coming off his own six-game bounty-related suspension. "This team has weathered the storm, stuck together and not pointed fingers, and they are trying to get better every day."
Running and stopping the run have been the largest improvements.
The Saints still are on pace to give up more yards than any team in NFL history, but they limited Michael Turner to 15 yards on 13 carries while shutting down the Falcons' running game. Their first eight opponents had rushed for more than 100 yards. Atlanta finished with 46.
"The fits were right, and the resolve was there," defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said. "Our guys swarmed. They had an eagerness about them. I'd like to see that more often. It was a real good display of run defense there, which is great to see."
They still rank in the bottom five of the league in rushing, but they ran for 148 yards against Atlanta, complementing Drew Brees and the prolific passing attack. Chris Ivory gained 10 more yards on his 56-yard touchdown jaunt in the first quarter than the Falcons had for the day.
After not playing in the first seven games, Ivory has 120 yards on 17 carries (7.1 average) in the last two. His long score against Atlanta came on his first attempt, and he ran 22 yards for a score on his second carry against Philadelphia on Nov. 5.
Those big plays appeared to energize the offensive line and fellow running back Mark Ingram, who has gained more than five yards a pop on 23 carries the past two weeks after averaging less than three yards before then.
"We're playing more together," left tackle Jermon Bushrod said. "We're just fighting to play more consistent up front. At the end of the day, the first few weeks, we weren't getting the job done. We had too many breakdowns. If we continue to get this running game going, we can open up our playbook a little bit more."
Atlanta's defense had no answer for the balanced offense. After Brees threw an interception on his first pass, New Orleans scored touchdowns on four of its next six possessions. The Falcons gave up 30 or more points for the first time this year as the Saints looked nothing like the team that lost at home to Washington and Kansas City in September.
"It's not a good feeling when you come into the locker room week-in and week-out and you don't win a game and you can't be joyful with your teammates the way you know how to be," Bushrod said. "When we got that first win it was like, 'We have got to get back here because it feels too good to win.' All that hard work you put in, you just want to see your team be successful."
With their poor start, the Saints could have given up on the season. They had the built-in excuse of Payton's unprecedented, yearlong absence because of his bounty-related suspension.
Instead, they have guaranteed themselves meaningful games in November, possibly December and maybe even longer.
"We know we're a good team," Greer said. "We know we have talent and good leadership. We are starting to develop our identity. We are looking forward to the opportunity we have."
Notes: Saints players have said the Falcons taunted linebacker Curtis Lofton during pre-game warm-ups Sunday, and Greer said he was not surprised. Lofton, the Saints' leading tackler, played his first four years in Atlanta before signing with New Orleans as a free agent in the offseason. Said Greer: "This is a hot-tempered game. We realize they weren't going to give him flowers and buttercups.". Vitt refused to specify the leg injury rookie cornerback Corey White had against the Falcons. League policy allows the Saints to wait until Wednesday to provide injury updates. White was hurt two series after making his first career interception.
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