Since evening their record at 4-4, the New Orleans Saints have lost four of five (including two straight) and need to win out in order to avoid a third consecutive losing season, the first time that will have happened under Coach Sean Paytonand the first time it will have happened for the franchise since a six-season streak of such finishes from 1994-99. It won't be easy against the Cardinals: They're 4-2-1 at University of Phoenix Stadium, and allow just 14.1 points per game at home. Here are a few things the Saints will have to do well in order to win:
- Just once in the Hall of Fame career of Drew Brees– the third and fourth games of the 2007 season, his seventh year in the NFL and second with the Saints – has he had consecutive games where he threw a combined six interceptions and did not have a touchdown pass. So when he says he has belief that he'll be fine, he has the resume to back it up. But, that said, the Saints need some vintage Brees against a formidable Arizona defense that allows just 201.8 passing yards per game, has posted 32 sacks (eight by Chandler Jones, seven by Markus Golden) and has 12 interceptions (three by former LSU star Patrick Peterson). All facets need to be on point (Brees wouldn't be touchdown-less if he hadn't had a couple of scoring passes dropped against Tampa Bay, but that ship has sailed), so the Saints need to be sharp against a team that hasn't allowed more than 269 passing yards in any game. Peterson generally is utilized to take away one receiver; whoever is left has to make plays when they're there to be made.
- Life on offense will be a lot easier if the Saints can hang on to the ball a bit longer (23:08 against Detroit, 26:45 against Tampa Bay). One way to accomplish that would be to run it better. Twelve carries for 50 yards (against the Lions) and 16 for 46 (against the Buccaneers) won't cut it. If Mark Ingram II(772 rushing yards, 5.1 yards per carry) is healthy, and Ingram said Friday that he feels better than he has the past couple of weeks, New Orleans needs him to be something akin to what he was during that four-game stretch against San Francisco, Denver, Carolina and Los Angeles, when he averaged 8.1 yards on 47 carries. Ingram needs 193 yards over his last three games to set a new season career high (964 is his best, in 2014). Arizona allows just 96.8 rushing yards per game, so everything gained will be earned.
- The total has reached eight – as in, eight consecutive games in which little fault could be found in the way the Saints' defense has performed. Seven of those opponents scored 23 points or less and though Detroit posted 28, 15 came via five field goals. For a comparison, try this: Through the first five games, the Saints allowed 18 offensive touchdowns; in the last eight, they've allowed 15. In the first five games, opponents averaged 30.8 points per game; in the last eight, 20.9. Six of those opponents have been held to 359 yards or less, and three of the last four have failed to accumulate more than 270. Now, Arizona isn't exactly an offensive juggernaut (23 points per game overall, with the scoring average essentially the same in home and road games). But the Cardinals have running back David Johnson(1,085 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns on 248 carries, plus 745 receiving yards and four touchdowns on 69 catches), and he obviously is a point of emphasis for the Saints. It may not be as simple as containing-Johnson-equals-containing-Arizona, but that sentiment may not be far off.
- Payton has lauded the character of his players this season, so here's another chance for that trait to be on display. It should be easy for players to mentally and emotionally invest in the last two games, against division rivals Tampa Bay (home) and Atlanta (road). This one is against a non-division opponent, on the road, with no spoiler role to play and no divisional bad blood to draw upon. We saw a good bit of that character on display when the Saints lost their first three games, then won four of five to even their record. They've lost four of five but three have been by a combined total of 10 points. That's the scrappiness they'll need Sunday against the Cardinals.