1. SEAN PAYTON. No man is an island, but one man can be a heck of a football coach. It’s obvious that the New Orleans Saints are a different team with Sean Payton calling the shots and setting the tone. Though the head coach insists that his play-calling skills remain a little rusty and continues to stress that he has to improve, the results pretty much speak for themselves. The Saints were 2-4 through the first six games last season, 5-1 through the first six this season. True, there were other offseason additions and some players have improved almost immeasurably (See: No. 2 on the list). But no addition was bigger than the reintroduction of Payton, who has heightened the sense of accountability and has given the Saints a confidence that they lacked last season.
2. JIMMY GRAHAM. Speaking of improved Saints, Graham’s inclusion on the list really doesn’t require much of an explanation, but we’ll flush it out anyway. Entering Sunday’s game against New England, the tight end led the NFL in receiving yards, with 593. After being shut out against the Patriots … he still leads the NFL in receiving yards. That tells you how productive he has been. He learned a hard lesson against Patriots cornerback Talib Aquib in Gillette Stadium and the guess here is that Graham will apply his learning during the final 10 games of the season. The major hindrance to his continued improvement this season would be injury. Otherwise, pencil him in for a spot on the All-Pro team.
3. THE LATE SHOW. Fans would prefer to see the Saints blow out opponents by 28 points but if that’s not going to be the case, perfecting the art of winning late isn’t a bad Plan B. Twice, New Orleans has had games decided on the opponents’ final offensive play (Atlanta, New England), and once, on its own final play (Tampa Bay). The Saints are 2-1 in such games and would’ve been perfect if they’d found a way to prevent the Patriots from scoring a touchdown with five seconds left. If it’s close, the Saints know what to do.
4. SPECIAL RESULTS. There isn’t much sexiness to special teams, especially after the way the Saints played special teams last season. But the Saints quietly have compiled a fantastic stretch of coverage and effective kicking. Opponents are averaging 6.1 yards per punt return and 26.2 yards per kickoff return, a year after the coverage teams allowed 12.6 yards on punt returns and 25 on kickoff returns. Credit punter
5. ROB RYAN. It’s OK to admit that in your wildest dreams, you wouldn’t have conjured a scenario in which this year’s Saints defense would have allowed 11 touchdowns and an average of 338 yards through six games. After last season, Saints fans would’ve been OK if the defense had held opponents in the 24-point range and counted on the offense to bail it out. Well, this defense has held every opponent except New England to 18 points or less, and an average of 17 points per game. Credit defensive coordinator Rob Ryan for injecting swagger – and some timely blitzes – into the scheme and credit the players for learning it and playing fast. The Saints have 20 sacks and have forced 12 turnovers.
6. NEXT MAN UP. Defensive end
7. CAM JORDAN. Jordan leads the Saints in sacks (five) and arguably has been the team’s best defensive player. More than once, Payton has referenced Jordan’s superior conditioning this season and it has shown on Sundays (and Monday, against the Dolphins). He has sacks in four of the last five games (and a forced fumble, and fumble recovery) and is an every-down lineman. The thought was that he possibly would have a breakout season and he hasn’t disappointed.
8. SHORT GAME. The Saints are averaging 3.4 yards per rush even after gashing New England for five yards per carry (131 yards on 26 attempts). Cause for concern? Not so much. Screen passes and swing passes to the running backs have substituted for traditional handoffs –
9. DREW BREES. Duh. Enough said.
10. THE RECORD. If at any point prior to the first regular-season game, someone had told you the Saints would be 5-1 entering the bye week and the only loss would be on the road, in the final five seconds, to the team of a Hall of Fame-bound quarterback, you’d have taken it and been ecstatic with the prognostication. So, take it and be ecstatic with it. Only two NFL teams have a better record than New Orleans, and neither is in the NFC. The team that finished 7-9 last season totally has flipped the script; the defense isn’t a liability, the special teams have been shored up and the offense, though not yet as potent as past seasons, still has scored plenty enough. The final 10 games promise to be arduous and one four-game stretch – Dallas and San Francisco at home, Atlanta and Seattle on the road – appears to be especially challenging. But New Orleans has met all challenges so far and, likely, exceeded most expectations. The Saints should enjoy the fruits of their labor, and enjoy the bye. There has been much to like.