Published November 20, 2014
Because if the recent exploits of the New Orleans Saints are indicative, the road to representing the NFC at this year's Big Game in Indianapolis may not necessary be lined with cheeseheads.
In fact, since a head-scratching 10-point loss at previously winless St. Louis on Halloween eve, the Saints have looked less like speed bumps and more like legitimate title challengers.
In four games since that loss, which came against playoff contenders Tampa Bay, Atlanta, the New York Giants and Detroit, New Orleans has won by an average score of 33-20 while racking up a combined 1,831 total yards.
Test No. 5 comes Sunday at Nashville's LP Field, where the Saints visit the Tennessee Titans.
"The loss to St. Louis left us in the middle of the division with Atlanta and Tampa," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. "November is when you begin to separate yourselves from the pack, and we wanted to be playing our best football."
New Orleans now leads the NFC South by two games over Atlanta, with the two rivals also set to face one another at the Superdome in Week 16. The Saints are currently the No. 3 seed in the conference, three games behind the unbeaten Packers and one back of the West-leading San Francisco 49ers.
Green Bay beat New Orleans, 42-34, in the regular-season opener at Lambeau.
"We feel like we're one of the elite teams," wide receiver Lance Moore said. "Obviously, we have the third-best record in the NFC, but we can't worry about what Green Bay's doing. We can't worry about what San Francisco's doing. We have to worry about what we're doing."
Brees completed 26-of-36 passes for 342 yards in last week's 31-17 win over Detroit. His 4,031 passing yards are tops in the NFL this season, and he's the first quarterback in league history to eclipse 4,000 in the first 12 games of a campaign.
Oh, and the Saints are averaging 32.8 points per game overall, a tick above the 31.9 per-game clip that ultimately yielded a win over Indianapolis in Super Bowl XLIV two seasons ago.
"For the guys who were here in 2009, after [last Sunday's] game and the way we've played the last four weeks, there's a little bit of that feeling like we've kind of flipped that switch and we've kind of hit that next gear," linebacker Scott Shanle said. "Now it's up to us to see if we can maintain that level."
But it hasn't all been fun and games.
The New Orleans defense has been far from breathtaking, allowing an output of 378.8 yards per week that's surely a focal point in the preparation of Titans running back Chris Johnson, who went for 153 yards in last Sunday's 23-17 victory at Buffalo. A week earlier, he had a season-best 190 yards against Tampa Bay.
Johnson, a well-publicized training camp holdout, gained just 509 yards in his first 10 games before his pair of outbursts.
"At the beginning of the season the passing game carried us, and now it's time for the running game to step it up," Johnson said. "Anytime you want to build a full team, and hopefully make it to the Super Bowl, you're going to have to have all the elements."
Tennessee trails first-place Houston by two games in the AFC South and is one of four 7-5 teams in the mix as the conference Wild Card race hits the home stretch.
And if Johnson's legs are fresh now thanks to the summertime theatrics, all the better.
"That's what we're hoping," head coach Mike Munchak said. "We're looking at it that way now, that it's an advantage for us coming down the stretch, that we become the best running football team the last eight weeks of the season and hopefully into the playoffs. That's how we have to spin it when you struggle early."
The Titans own a 7-4-1 lead in their all-time series with the Saints and registered their fourth straight victory over New Orleans with a 31-14 triumph at the Superdome in 2007. Tennessee also bested the Saints by a 27-12 count in Nashville in 2003 and posted a 24-21 road win over New Orleans in 1999. The Saints' last positive result in the set took place in 1993, a 33-21 decision over the then-Houston Oilers at the Superdome, with the Oilers exacting revenge via a 31-14 road verdict in New Orleans three years later. The Saints haven't beaten the Tennessee franchise on the road since Sept. 30, 1984, a 27-10 final in Houston.
These teams also squared off in New Orleans during the final week of the 2011 preseason, with the Titans rolling to a 32-9 win on Sept. 1.
Saints head coach Sean Payton has an 0-1 lifetime record against the Titans, while Munchak will be facing both Payton and New Orleans for the first time as a sideline boss.
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
Brees leads the NFL with 4,031 passing yards and is the first player with 4,000-plus in his first 12 games of a season. He has 20 or more completions in an NFL-record 32 straight games and thrown a touchdown pass in 39 consecutive contests, the second-longest streak in NFL history, and has won 13 of his past 15 games against the AFC (including the Super Bowl) while completing 406-of-566 attempts (71.7 percent) for 4,531 yards, 33 touchdowns, 15 interceptions and a 103.6 rating. Running back/return man Darren Sproles is the only player in the NFL with two or more rushing touchdowns, two or more receiving touchdowns and a return touchdown this season. He has four touchdowns (two rush, two receiving) in two career games against Tennessee. Rookie running back Mark Ingram aims for a third game in a row with a touchdown, but is questionable to play due to a turf toe injury. Second-year pro Jimmy Graham leads NFL tight ends in receptions (75) and receiving yards (1,046) and aims for a fifth game in a row against the AFC with a touchdown catch. Wide receiver Marques Colston, meanwhile, has seven touchdowns in his past eight games against AFC foes, and Moore has five touchdowns in his past five overall outings. Fellow wide receiver Robert Meachem had 119 yards, which included a 67-yard touchdown, in last week's win. He has 22 career receiving touchdowns, 15 of which have gone for 25 or more yards.
For Tennessee's defense, cornerback Jason McCourty leads the team with 87 tackles, but may not play this week after sustaining a concussion in the Buffalo game, in which rookie linebacker Colin McCarthy had a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries. Fourth-year end Jason Jones has 23 tackles, three sacks and a forced fumble to lead the defensive line.
Statistically speaking, the New Orleans offense is second in scoring (32.8 ppg), first in total yards (448.7 ypg) and passing (325.3 ypg) and eighth in rushing (123.3 ypg). On defense, the Titans are sixth in points allowed (19.1 ppg), 18th in both total defense (355.3 ypg) and pass defense (233.5 ypg) and 21st against the run (121.8 ypg).
WHEN THE TITANS HAVE THE BALL
In his last meeting with the Saints, which came while with Seattle in an NFC Wild Card Playoff back in January, Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck completed 22-of-35 passes (62.9 percent) for 272 yards and four touchdowns with an interception for a 113.0 passer rating. For his career (including postseason), he has 10 touchdown throws versus three interceptions against New Orleans. Johnson averages 104.3 rushing yards per game in December and in 15 career games against NFC foes, averages 107.2 rushing yards per game with 17 touchdowns. He has also rushed for at least 100 yards and two touchdowns 11 times in his first four seasons, tied with Hall of Famer Earl Campbell and Clinton Portis for the fourth-most in NFL history. Wide receiver Nate Washington leads the NFL with 24 receptions on third down and needs 20 receiving yards to surpass his career-best of 687 set in 2010. Counterpart Damian Williams is averaging 16.8 yards per catch in his past four games (13 receptions, 218 yards).
For New Orleans on defense, safety Roman Harper has 16 sacks since joining the NFL in 2006, the most by a defensive back, while end Will Smith has 8 1/2 sacks in his past 12 games against AFC opponents. Ninth-year linebacker Shanle has 57 tackles, a sack and an interception for the season.
By the numbers, Tennessee is 21st in scoring (20.8 ppg), 22nd in total yards (319.3 ypg), 18th in passing (222.5 ypg) and 28th in rushing (96.8 ypg). The Saints on defense are 19th in points allowed (22.4 ppg), 27th in yards allowed (378.8 ypg), third-from-last against the pass (264.2 ypg) and 16th against the run (114.6 ypg).
KEYS TO THE GAME
A red-hot Brees has been other-worldly through 12 games and could continue the run against a Tennessee team stuck firmly in the middle of the pack in terms of pass defense. With a Green Bay-like variety of targets, it's hard for opponents to concentrate on limiting just one.
Now that the checks are signed and the cash deposited, Tennessee's Johnson is showing the form that made executives think he was worth the extra millions to begin with. For the Titans to compete, he'll need to extend possessions and shorten the game on the ground.
Graham has been overshadowed some by New England's Rob Gronkowski this season, but is firmly on pace to eclipse the league record of 1,290 receiving yards by a tight end established by Kellen Winslow in 1980. He eclipsed 1,000 yards last week with eight catches against Detroit and will be a player the Titans need to pay attention to.
The Titans have bent in terms of surrendering yardage, but haven't broken by not allowing too many points through 12 games. Still, the streaking Saints provide a challenge unlike what they've seen before. And even if the Brees offensive showcase is somewhat slowed, it would take an uncharacteristic slew of errors for New Orleans' offense to shut down enough to stop the win streak.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 24, Titans 20