The New Orleans Saints are piling up wins and playing like championship contenders again. Just don't tell them that.
They claim there are too many obstacles in their path, a big one being their visit to the Chicago Bears on Sunday.
They haven't won at Soldier Field since 2000, and Drew Brees' next victory there will be his first. So excuse the Saints if they're feeling just a little uneasy even as they're stomping opponents.
"Obviously, history has not treated us well in Soldier Field," Brees said. "Obviously, we all want to go up there and play well and get a win. I know the Bears are coming off a tough loss in the division, so they're going to be ripe and ready to play us. We'll need our best, no doubt about it."
The Saints (4-0) are playing more like the 13-3 team of two years ago than the one that stumbled to 7-9 last season with coach Sean Payton serving his bounty scandal ban. Their offense and defense rank among the best. Brees is performing as well as any quarterback in the league.
Still, beating the Bears is a big if, given New Orleans' history at Soldier Field.
The last time they won there, Jim Haslett was in his first year as coach. They're 0-3 under Payton, including the 2006 team's loss in the NFC title game. Brees is winless in four tries with San Diego and New Orleans. He has almost as many interceptions (six) as touchdowns (seven), and his completion percentage at the lakefront stadium (55.7) is 10 points lower than his career average.
That bodes well for Chicago. This does not:
Brees ranks second to Peyton Manning in yards passing. Tight end Jimmy Graham is second in yards receiving and has six touchdowns, and the Saints rank fourth overall on offense even though they're 25th in rushing. They've been so good in every other area on offense and defense that a poor ground game hasn't hurt their record.
Brees threw for 413 yards and four touchdowns, two to Graham, in a 38-17 victory over Miami. The defense had four takeaways.
The Bears (3-1) are trying to pick themselves up from a 40-32 loss to Detroit. Jay Cutler coughed up the ball and defenders missed too many tackles, and the result was the first loss under Marc Trestman.
Chicago allowed 159 yards rushing at Detroit, with Reggie Bush going for 139. Against Pittsburgh a week earlier, the Bears allowed 379 yards passing.
"It's an easy fix," cornerback Tim Jennings said. "I just think we have to get back to the fundamentals, the basics, everybody getting to the football, ready to break down. And make tackles. ... We had way too many (missed) tackles in the Detroit game. I think it hurt us a lot."
Five things to watch in Saints-Bears:
TAKE IT AWAY, 'D': For all the trouble the Bears are having taking down opponents, they're having no trouble taking away the ball. They have 14 takeaways and 55 points off turnovers, both league highs, to go with three defensive touchdowns. That's helped ease some of the sting for a defense that's allowing 384 yards per game and ranks 20th. The Saints have been opportunistic, too, and are tied for third with seven interceptions.
GAINING GROUND: Given the Bears' difficulties tackling, this could be a week New Orleans gains some ground on the ground. The Saints ranked sixth in rushing on the way to 13-3 seasons in 2009 and 2011, but they haven't clicked so far. RB Mark Ingram has missed the last two games with a toe injury, although he's only averaging 1.8 yards per carry. Losing left tackle Jermon Bushrod and offensive line coach Aaron Kromer to Chicago in the offseason didn't help, either.
GOOD JAY OR BAD JAY?: Cutler sent out a reminder last week he's still prone to those head-scratching, mistake-filled games. After orchestrating two late comebacks while leading the Bears to a 3-0 record, he threw three interceptions and lost a fumble against Detroit. His mechanics were off, and he now has as many touchdowns (eight) as turnovers this season.
ROAD TEST: Three of the Saints' first four games were at home, and their only trip was to struggling Tampa Bay in Week 2. How will they handle the noise, and can they contain an offense with as many weapons as Chicago's — with Cutler, Brandon Marshall and Matt Forte — in a tough environment?
PUNTING PODLESH: One Bears player under the microscope is Adam Podlesh, who struggled last week and dropped to 28th in punting average (43.5 yards). Chicago auditioned six punters on Tuesday.
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