Check out the division action between the Saints and Falcons in Week 16.
The New Orleans Saints (11-4), who won eight straight games at one point this season, now have won three of their last four entering the regular-season finale, against the Buccaneers in Tampa, Fla. Sunday's 23-13 victory over Atlanta (9-6) provided plenty of theatrics and influencers for the Saints, who are one victory – or a Carolina loss – away from winning the NFC South Division title.
OFFENSE:It was a bare-knuckle-scrap type of game Sunday, and the offensive numbers for the Saints reflected as much. Of course, Drew Breesalways is a worthy candidate, and he didn't do anything to diminish that status against the Falcons. He completed 75 percent of his passes (21 of 28) for 239 yards and a touchdown, with an interception that wasn't his fault. But the guy to whom the pick could be attributed, Ted Ginn Jr. , is the guy I'm choosing. Ginn's juice is a noticeable and when it's absent, as it was in the Saints' win over the Jets, it's telling. It wasn't Sunday, and that, too, was telling. Ginn caught four passes for a team-high 76 yards, and his 54-yard touchdown catch from Brees with 14 seconds left in the first half gave the Saints a 13-0 lead. More, it again highlighted his ability simply to run away from cornerbacks who are five, six, seven years younger. His bobble that led to an interception in the third quarter was erased by his defensive teammates, who produced a goal-line stand that resulted in a forced fumble and recovery. Having him opens up the field, because his speed must be respected.
DEFENSE:No way can I pick just one player after Sunday's performance, the third consecutive stellar defensive showing and the second one against Atlanta in two-and-a-half weeks. So we'll split the sticker three ways. First, there's linebacker Manti Te'o, who has been much more than a fill-in for A.J. Klein. Te'o set a tone Sunday with his gap-plugging presence. He had four tackles, but two tackles for loss – he also drew a penalty from Falcons running back Devonta Freeman for grabbing the face mask of Te'o, as Te'o chased him down from behind and out of bounds – and he recovered a fumble that was forced by defensive tackle Tyeler Davison (a worthy candidate in his own right). Second, there's rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore, whose second-quarter interception had to be seen to be believed. In addition to gaining control of a pick that made it to his butt and the back of his legs, he had six tackles and four passes defensed, while often finding himself matched against Atlanta's Julio Jones, arguably the best or second-best receiver in the league. Finally, there's defensive end Cam Jordan, because he's as good as there is in the league at being an every-down defensive lineman. Jordan posted his 11th and 12th sacks of the season, along with two tackles for loss, four quarterback hits and three tackles. His motor never, ever shuts down. One more: High honorable mention to defensive end George Johnson, who had 1.5 sacks and three quarterback hits and now has 2.5 sacks in two games with the Saints.
SPECIAL TEAMS:Another one where it was tough to come up with one candidate. Receiver Tommylee Lewis(four punt returns for 43 yards, including an 18-yarder) and running back Alvin Kamara(two kickoff returns for 72 yards) gave the Saints some punch in the return games, and Wil Lutz'sthree field goals in as many attempts raised his season total to 30 of 35. But defensive back Justin Hardeehelped set a tone on special teams with his two solo tackles. The Saints shut down Atlanta's return game (9.7 yards on three punt returns, 22.5 on two kickoff returns) and Hardee has made it easy to see why the Saints wanted him to be a member of the units.