Published November 16, 2012
| Sports Network
The Oakland Raiders may not mind hosting the New Orleans Saints, but it's a safe bet they'd have rather gotten the premiere version than the sequel.
Because as bad as Drew Brees and Co. looked in going 0-for-September, they've looked at least that good while winning four of five games to get back into a muddled NFC postseason conversation.
And while the South Division title remains four games away with just seven remaining, the Saints did make a statement last week by being the first team to defeat the now 8-1 Atlanta Falcons in 2012 -- doing so by 31-27 decision at the Superdome.
They visit the Bay Area this weekend with eyes on a season-best third straight triumph, which would bring with it a coveted .500 record.
"That's something we feel like we're capable of and we envisioned being able to do that, because we know the type of team we have," Brees said. "We knew we dug ourselves a hole. We knew we had a mountain to climb, but we also knew we have the right type of people. Good things are starting to happen."
Brees has thrown 15 touchdowns and four interceptions in the five-game recovery phase, and netted 298 yards and three scores against the Falcons. That said, the defense allowed 400 yards for the ninth straight game, in spite of a smothering that left Atlanta's Michael Turner with just 15 on 13 run attempts.
Optimistically, though, a goal-line stand in the fourth quarter did secure the win, New Orleans' 13th in a row in November.
"(It) was a direct result of how hard this team has worked from Day 1, when I wasn't here," interim coach Joe Vitt said. "This team has weathered the storm, stuck together and not pointed fingers, and they are trying to get better every day."
The Saints are 2-1 under Vitt's leadership after going 2-4 while he was serving a six-game suspension related to the bounty scandal uncovered in the offseason. The renaissance has included a return to the run game, which yielded 148 yards against the Falcons a week after gaining 140 against Philadelphia.
Since 2010, the Saints are 1-9 when they run 20 or fewer times and 27-4 when it's 21 or more.
"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."
Running back Chris Ivory returned two weeks ago after seven weeks of inactivity and has rushed for 120 yards, scored twice and averaged 7.1 yards per carry in two games. He'll probably continue to get work this week in the absence of Darren Sproles, who could miss a third straight game with a broken hand.
"(Ivory is) a beast," Brees said. "He's a rare combination of speed and power."
For the Raiders, oft-injured running back Darren McFadden may be out for a second straight week with a sprained ankle, though the Raiders' more immediate concerns surround a defense that's been embarrassed to the tune of 97 points in its last two games.
Oakland gave up 42 points in a home loss to Tampa Bay two weeks ago -- along with 278 rush yards -- then tied a club record by allowing 55 to the Baltimore Ravens last week.
"That outcome was unacceptable," said coach Dennis Allen, a former Saints assistant. "We have to be better than that. I wish there was a magical answer. I know everybody wants a magical, 'This is the solution,' but at the end of the day, and I've said this over and over, it's about us doing our job the right way every single time. And when we develop that consistency, when we've had that consistency, we've played well in all three phases. But that's the key to having success."
Adding to the potential misery this week is New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham, who had seven catches for 146 yards last week and has scored four TDs in his last three games.
Brees completed 26 of 30 passes for 320 yards and three TDs in beating the Raiders when they last played in 2008. He's won six straight starts against Oakland while with the Saints and San Diego.
The all-time series is even at 5-5-1, though New Orleans has won three of the last four. Neither Vitt nor Allen has ever faced this week's opponent.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Among the last things a defense that's given up 97 points in two weeks and is 24th of 32 teams against the pass would want to encounter is a prolific quarterback like Brees, but that's exactly what the Raiders find themselves matched with.
Oakland is allowing 255.9 yards through the air per week, while allowing opposing QBs to complete 66 percent of their throws and managing a measly 11 sacks. Expect a maximum spotlight on cornerbacks Phillip Adams and Joselio Hanson, especially after starter Pat Lee was waived following the debacle against Baltimore and Shawntae Spencer went on injured reserve.
The Saints' difficult start might make them less of a favorite going into a long road trip to California, but the edition that's been showing up lately -- when combined with the struggles the Raiders have had stopping even the most middling of offenses -- doesn't figure to leave Oakland with anything less than a .500-gaining victory.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Saints 27, Raiders 14