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Cleveland: On the Success of the New Orleans Saints

Five weeks ago, the New Orleans Saints opened this much-anticipated season by losing at home, 48-40, to division rival Tampa Bay.

The Saints were, in a word, awful. They made Ryan Fitzpatrick look like Joe Montana. They couldn’t get to him, couldn’t cover Bucs receivers, couldn’t tackle, and looked more a pretender than contender.

“We got a wake-up call,” said defensive end Cam Jordan.

Give the Saints credit for this: They didn’t roll over and go back to sleep.

In succession, the Saints have defeated Cleveland 21-18, Atlanta 43-37, the New York Giants 33-18, and Washington 43-19. They have improved with each succeeding game.

They are where they want to be now, in the first place, all alone, with a 4-1 record, a game ahead of the Carolina Panthers. While the Saints enjoyed an open date this past weekend, Carolina was losing at Washington. That’s right. The same Redskins the Saints routed the week before helped put New Orleans in the first place.

Now then, comes the hard part: staying there.

A quick look at the Saints schedule shows how difficult that’s will be. The Saints will be underdogs at sack-happy Baltimore this Sunday. They play at Minnesota the week after – and that’s never been for the Saints, who have won only one of their last eight games at Minnesota. And then they play what many believe to the NFL’s best team, the undefeated Los Angeles Rams, the week after that.

The combined record of the next three Saints’ foes? Try 13-4-1. Two of the three are on the road. (The Rams come to New Orleans Nov. 4. That would be a good ticket to have.)

It doesn’t get a whole lot easier after that. Later in November, the Saints play Cincinnati, Super Bowl champion Philadelphia, arch-rival Atlanta, and the Dallas Cowboys. Whoever made up the Saints schedule is probably someone who likes sticking needles into dolls.

All that said, I like this Saints team and its chances as this season progresses. Reason No. 1: Drew Brees, the NFL’s all-time leading passer who will turn 40 in January, shows no signs of his age. I’ve never seen him more accurate or better than he was in that record-setting Monday night performance against the Redskins.

No. 2 reason: The Saints can run the football, which makes it all the easier for Brees. If Alvin Kamara isn’t the best all-around running back in the sport, he’s definitely in the conservation, and now Mark Ingram is back and with fresh legs.

No. 3 reason: Wide receiver Michael Thomas has established himself as one of the league’s best, Brees’ go-to guy.

No. 4 reason: In their last two games, against the Giants and Redskins, the Saints defense showed definite signs of improvement – although they must get better still, especially against this upcoming schedule. Cam Jordan, with five sacks in five games, is doing his part. The Saints badly need someone else – perhaps No. 1 draft choice Marcus Davenport – to get to the opposing quarterback.

Offensively, the Saints need a second wide receiver to take some of the attention off Thomas. After Thomas with 46 catches for 519 yards, Saints wide receivers drop all the way down to Ted Ginn with 12 catches for 135 yards. And then you’ve got Cameron Meredith with just nine catches for 115.

Look for rookie Tre’Quan Smith out of UCF to eventually be that guy. He had three catches, two for touchdowns, against the Redskins. He was the Saints’ leading receiver in the preseason. Look for more and more of him in the coming weeks.

The Saints are definitely one of the top five or six teams in the NFL currently. They’ll need to be all that in this next phase of the season when it appears they will play a legit Super Bowl contender nearly every Sunday. First up: Baltimore, which sacked Marcus Mariota 11 times last Sunday.

Rick Cleveland (rcleveland@mississippitoday.org) is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist.

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