The New Orleans Saints no longer control whether they can be the NFC's No. 1 seed in the playoffs. By virtue of their 48-46 loss to San Francisco, the Saints (10-3) now will need some assistance to climb back to the top spot, or to secure the No. 2 seed.
What the Saints do control is their own level of play. And entering their Monday night game against Indianapolis (6-7) in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans is hoping to raise that level throughout the remainder of the regular season.
The first step: Beating a Colts team that is struggling, with losses in three straight games and five of their last six. For the Saints, here are a few ways victory can be accomplished:
- The argument can be made that there's no "good" time for an opposing defense to face Drew Brees in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. But the future Hall of Famer would love to keep the groove going from last Sunday, when he completed 29 of 40 passes for 349 yards and five touchdowns, without an interception, against the 49ers. And that was the league's top-ranked pass defense entering the game. Indy's isn't quite as formidable; the Colts are 22nd, allowing 245.4 passing yards per game. And when history is in sight, Brees usually seizes the moment, especially at home. He's three touchdown passes away from surpassing Peyton Manning's NFL-record 539 career touchdown throws, and this is the Saints' last regular-season home game this year. The setting is right.
- After a couple months of stellar play, the Saints' defense had its worst game of the season against San Francisco: six touchdowns and 516 yards allowed, even though it produced a turnover and three sacks. Obviously, the Colts took notice of what happened. Indianapolis also knows that the Saints lost two defensive linemen this week, when end Marcus Davenport and tackle Sheldon Rankins were placed on injured reserve. Add in that end Cam Jordan (team-leading 13.5 sacks) was nursing an abdominal injury this week, and the Saints' defensive strength – the defensive line – looks a bit weakened. New Orleans can't allow Indy's Jacoby Brissett (2,496 passing yards, 18 touchdowns, six interceptions) to get into a similar rhythm. Brissett only has been sacked 20 times, and he's mobile. But New Orleans has to get him off his marks, speed up his mental clock and cover better. The Saints were embarrassed by their pass defense against the 49ers, so expect cornerback Marshon Lattimore and the crew to step up their games. The secondary will be without safety Vonn Bell, so keep an eye on rookie C.J. Gardner-Johnson, who has had some impressive games but also, some spotty play.
- The 49ers sliced New Orleans for 162 rushing yards and 6.8 yards per carry. The Saints rarely have consecutive poor games against the run and with linebacker A.J. Klein back from injury, they hope to continue that trend. The 94.2 rushing yards per game that the Saints allow undoubtedly is a sore spot for a defense that has grown accustomed to allowing 10 or 15 yards per game less than that. Indy runs for 133 yards per game, so New Orleans needs to be ready.
- It's becoming a weekly occurrence that tight end Jared Cook displays his value. In the last four games, he has 13 catches for 281 yards and four touchdowns – and that's after missing the last three quarters against San Francisco with a concussion. He caught two passes for 64 yards, and two touchdowns, in the first quarter against the 49ers. If opponents are going to devote extra resources to running back Alvin Kamara and receiver Michael Thomas (it's not working against Thomas, who still leads the league in receptions and receiving yards), then it's going to continue to leave room for Cook to operate. Also, this could be a high-touch game for Kamara; no inside intel, just a feeling.