The New Orleans Saints' grit is reflected in the standings and in their status.
New Orleans now is 11-4 after Sunday's 23-13 victory over Atlanta in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, good for first place in the NFC South Division, and one victory (or a Carolina loss next week) from winning the division title and claiming the home playoff game that goes along with being the division champ.
But the main result from Sunday's win is this: After a three-year absence, the Saints are back in the playoffs. They clinched a berth after splitting the season series with the Falcons and finishing off their home schedule with a 7-1 record in front of their loudest, most passionate crowd this season. Each unit carried out its duties in the victory.
OFFENSE: The Saints weren't overly potent; credit Atlanta's defense for much of that. The Falcons are the defending NFC champions, so they're legit. But the Saints got it done on offense when they needed to get it done. They got three field goals from Wil Lutz, who quietly is having an outstanding season, and twice cashed in for touchdowns on a shortened field. Drew Brees threw a 54-yard touchdown pass to Ted Ginn Jr. right before halftime to cap a 64-yard drive that was initiated by Marshon Lattimore's team-leading fifth interception (more on that later), and Mark Ingram II scampered 26 yards for a touchdown to complete a 54-yard drive in the third quarter. Don't harp on the rushing total (86 yards, on 31 carries); the attempts, in a slugfest, are the numbers to watch because they ensure that the opposing defense has to respect the threat. New Orleans still won't like what it saw on third down (3 for 13) and it twice came up empty in the red zone, but the Saints gobbled up time of possession (33:48-26:12) and they were able to weather a gifted turnover (a Brees pass that went through Ginn's hands and into the waiting arms of Atlanta linebacker Deion Jones).
DEFENSE: You aren't likely to see better than what the Saints have been able to accomplish against Atlanta in two games this season. After intercepting Matt Ryan three times and holding him to 221 passing yards in Atlanta, the Saints were just as ferocious Sunday. Ryan completed 22 of 36 passes for 288 yards and a touchdown, but he was intercepted once and sacked five times. The run game wasn't allowed to give him respite; the Saints held the Falcons to 67 rushing yards on 20 attempts. And the defense got off the field when it had to, with Atlanta converting just twice in 13 third-down attempts. Atlanta didn't help itself with penalties (10 for 91), but the Saints twice made goal-line stands that resulted in no points allowed – defensive tackle Tyeler Davison forced a Devonta Freeman fumble at the Saints' 1 with New Orleans leading 13-0 in the third quarter (linebacker Manti Te'o recovered), and on the first play of the fourth quarter, linebacker Hau'oli Kikaha sliced under a block on fourth-and-goal from the 1 to tackle Freeman for no gain, and to preserve New Orleans' 20-3 lead. Those were game-changers, as was this: Lattimore's second-quarter pick, at the Saints' 36-yard line and with 50 seconds left in the half, will go down as one of the most memorable plays in a series that is full of them. Ryan's pass attempt for Marvin Hall was slightly behind as Hall crossed from left to right, and tipped up in the air by Hall. Lattimore, in hot pursuit, also tipped the ball before falling face first onto the turf. As he did so, the ball landed on Lattimore's butt, then rolled down his legs a bit. Teammates Craig Robertson and Marcus Williams attempted to corral it but, ultimately, Lattimore was able to cradle it somewhat between his lower legs, maneuver it back up his body toward his butt, and secure the ball as he rolled over. Hard work, luck and ball skills and converged, and the Saints had a turnover that deeply influenced the outcome.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Possibly, this was the Saints' best special team game of the season. Coverage was outstanding – Atlanta averaged 9.7 yards on three punt returns, 22.5 yards on two kickoff returns and defensive back Justin Hardee (two tackles) led the charge in coverage. Receiver Tommylee Lewis returned four punts for a 10.8-yard average, including an 18-yarder, and running back Alvin Kamara showed his kickoff return skills with two returns for a 36-yard average, including his 49-yarder to open the second half. Thomas Morstead punted six times for a 39.8-yard net (he likely wasn't pleased with the hang time on a couple), and Lutz's three field goals raised his season totals to 30 makes in 35 attempts. It was much, much better than solid overall, the kind of performance that the Saints will take every week if they can get it.