The New Orleans Saints (9-4) are rested, relatively healthy and ready for the stretch run, beginning with Sunday's game against the New York Jets (5-8) in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. They find themselves in the lately unfamiliar, but undoubtedly pleasing, position of controlling their own destiny with regard to winning the NFC South Division. Currently, they lead the division and if they continue to win, nothing will change that. No outside assistance is required. But here are a few ways in which the Saints can help themselves to a victory against New York.
- This week, hopefully, the Saints get back to doing what they arguably have done best this season, which is running the ball. They had 15 carries for 50 yards against Atlanta, season lows in both categories, and ran just 52 offensive plays, tying the season low. The Jets haven't exactly been an immovable object against the run; they allow 116.9 rushing yards per game, so the Saints could get back on track. Mark Ingram (192 carries for 971 yards and nine touchdowns) is 29 yards shy of his second consecutive 1,000-yard season, and 72 yards from matching last year's career-high of 1,043 rushing yards. And New Orleans will benefit from Alvin Kamara's return to full health; the rookie running back, who has 608 yards and seven touchdowns on 87 carries, left the Atlanta game with a concussion in the first quarter. No NFL duo better complements the other than Ingram and Kamara, and their re-emergence is critical.
- For the third time this season, the Saints' defense will be facing an inexperienced opposing quarterback. There was Chicago rookie Mitchell Trubisky; then, a first-time starter in Green Bay's Brett Hundley; and now, in the Jets' Bryce Petty, a first-time starter this season who has played seven NFL games. New Orleans obviously will want to put the game on the shoulders of a quarterback who, last week, completed two of nine passes for 14 yards in relief, and in his career has completed 54 percent of his passes for 823 yards and three touchdowns, with seven interceptions. The Saints intercepted Atlanta's Matt Ryan three times (cornerback Marshon Lattimore and safeties Chris Banjo and Marcus Williams did the honors) and limited him to 221 passing yards, and the secondary similarly will look to take advantage of a quarterback whose resume pales in comparison to Ryan's. Obviously, the Jets will want to establish the run to keep pressure off Petty and keep the Saints off balance and when they do throw, receiver Robby Anderson can make a secondary pay dearly. But with Lattimore back and Ken Crawley holding up well at the other cornerback position, there's reason for New Orleans to like its chances.
- I think Drew Brees is due for a light-it-up day. Arguably, the Saints' quarterback made one bad throw against Atlanta, but that end zone interception with 85 seconds left – a risk that Brees admits shouldn't have been taken – took points off the board in a 20-17 loss. It just feels like the time is right for a vintage showing, and Brees understands better than any of his teammates how crucial and precious it is to control your own destiny as a team. Expect Michael Thomas (85 catches, 992 yards, four touchdowns) in this game to top the 1,000-yard mark for the second consecutive season and, perhaps, to match last season's 92-catch total. He has been unstoppable lately.
- Hit 'em early. Start fast. Strike the first blow. Phrase it and cliché it any way you choose, but the fact is that if the Saints jump on the Jets and create some separation early, they may find a lessening of resistance from an opponent that's 1-5 on the road, has scored 12 points or less in three of the five losses and averages 14 points in its five road losses. This isn't the time for the Saints to take an opponent for granted, or pay attention to betting lines, or make an assumption because a young quarterback is facing their improved defense. They'll have to be mature enough to ignore the trappings, and to take another step toward a division title.