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John DeShazier: Saints seize first place with bounce-back win over Bears

Saints manhandle Bears 31-15

Official team photos from the New Orleans Saints vs Chicago Bears game on Monday, December 15, 2014. Photos by Michael C. Hebert (New Orleans Saints photos)

Chicago – On the heels of a loss that, to a man, the New Orleans Saints termed "embarrassing," New Orleans gave a national television audience a long look at the team it can be while seizing first place in the NFC South Division.

The Saints (6-8) manhandled the Bears at Soldier Field in a 31-15 victory on "Monday Night Football," claiming their third consecutive road victory and sole possession of first place in the NFC South, half a game ahead of Carolina (5-8-1) and a game ahead of Atlanta (5-9), their opponent on Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Monday's victory came eight days after the Saints played their worst game of the season. That 41-10 loss to the Panthers, at the Superdome, prompted top-to-bottom self-evaluation by coaches and players and led to a lineup shakeup on defense.

Corey White, a frequent starter this season, was a healthy inactive against the Bears as Terrence Frederick started at right cornerback and safety Kenny Vaccaro, who had started every game in his two-year career, moved to nickel back as Marcus Ball opened at safety with Pierre Warren.

The jolt apparently worked: Defensively, the Saints intercepted three passes (two by Warren), sacked Bears quarterback Jay Cutler seven times and held Chicago to 278 yards and 2 for 12 on third down.

And the offense was a complimentary unit, slicing through Chicago (5-9) for 443 yards, with Drew Brees completing 29 of 36 passes for 375 yards and three touchdowns.

"I think there's a sense of urgency that we need to create each week and we need to be mindful of how important that edge is to play well," Coach Sean Payton said Monday evening. "That's something we kind of focused on and made it a point of emphasis with everyone."

"I just think we responded well as a team," Brees said. "We were embarrassed about what happened last week and we know we're better than that. Certainly, a great sense of urgency going into this game, just knowing what's at stake and what a win would do for us, not only in the standings but just from a confidence standpoint."

The Saints bolstered themselves in each category, pitching a shutout defensively and scoring on touchdown drives of 85, 95 and 80 yards in the first three quarters.

"I was pleased with the energy level," Payton said. "The majority of the game defensively, I thought we did a real good job. We forced turnovers, we got the pressure we've been looking for. I thought our third-down defense was much improved.

"The first half offensively, we had opportunities. The first drive we ended up with the fumble, we sputtered with some penalties and weren't as clean but we were able put a couple of scores together. We did enough to win the game."

New Orleans pressed its will early, though it didn't immediately show on the scoreboard.

After winning the coin toss and deferring to the second half, the Saints went out on defense and cornerback Patrick Robinson intercepted Cutler on the third play of the game, returning it two yards to the Chicago 24-yard line.

The Saints didn't capitalize, giving back possession on their second play when receiver Nick Toon fumbled after a 10-yard catch to the 4-yard line, which the Bears recovered at the 3. But New Orleans sandwiched two forced punts around a missed 51-yard field-goal attempt by Shayne Graham, then got into an offensive groove.

Beginning at its own 15-yard line, New Orleans needed seven plays to drive 85 yards, with Brees throwing an 8-yard touchdown to tight end Josh Hill, on the first play of the second quarter to give the Saints a 7-0 lead.

The teams exchanged punts, the Saints stopped the Bears on a fake punt, then again exchanged punts before the Saints took possession at their 5-yard line with 4:02 left in the first half.

With Brees completing 8 of 9 passes on the drive, the Saints needed 10 plays to drive 95 yards – and never faced a third down – with Brees connecting on a 9-yard pass to Marques Colston for the score and a 14-0 lead with 32 seconds left in the half.

The Bears drove from their 17 to the 49 on two Cutler passes before his final pass of the half was intercepted by Warren at the Saints' 13-yard line, and returned 32 yards as time expired in the half.

In addition to the two interceptions, Cutler was sacked three times in the half, twice by linebacker David Hawthorne, who posted his third sack of the game in the second half.

"(Defensive coordinator) Rob (Ryan) came to us earlier in the week and we changed the path on a couple of blitzes, and that happened to be one of them," Hawthorne said. "He did a great job of explaining how it was going to hit, and it worked.

"It was 11 guys out there executing. It was the guys out there covering, giving me time to come up through the middle, and it was Rob with perfect timing on when to dial them up. And when we found something that worked, we stayed with it."

The Saints opened the third quarter offensively in the same manner they closed the second, with a touchdown drive. The 12-play, 80-yard drive ended on Brees' 7-yard scoring pass to Hill with 8:35 left in the quarter, raising the lead to 21-0.

The teams swapped punts before Warren again picked off a deep Cutler pass, intended for Alshon Jeffery, and returned it 21 yards from the Saints' 23-yard line to their 44 with 3:21 left in the quarter.

"The first (interception) was just toward the end of the half and we knew they were probably going deep to try to get a field goal or a touchdown, so were just trying not to get beat deep," Warren said. "And then the second one, West Bank (cornerback Keenan Lewis) helped me out on that one. He had figured something out, he told to get over the top of him and I was in the right place.

"It feels good because they brought me in to make turnovers. Doing that, I'm doing my job."

The turnover was converted into a 25-yard field goal by Shayne Graham and a 24-0 Saints lead that carried into the fourth quarter. Chicago's two fourth-quarter touchdowns, and a two-point conversion, were countered by Mark Ingram's 15-yard touchdown run for the Saints to provide the final margin.

"I saw a lot of enthusiasm, I saw a lot of guys just ready to play, just ready to go out there and turn it loose and not play with any inhibitions, not play with any caution or paralysis by over-analysis," Brees said. "Just going out and playing ball and doing it like we know how we can do."

But in victory, tight end Jimmy Graham said the Saints wouldn't develop amnesia. The feeling that followed the Carolina loss will not be forgotten.

"I want to remember every moment of that game, to keep us humble and to keep us hungry," he said. "When this team plays humble and hungry, we're very, very dangerous. So if we can keep that these next two games, we'll see where everything goes.

"When we're executing and we're catching the ball for Drew, we're a special offense and when our defense puts up a '0' into the fourth, we're going to be a hard team to beat."

Especially if they properly handle prosperity.

"I think we've shown a couple of times that we can respond from adversity," Brees said. "Let's make sure we can handle success, too.

"The tendency after success is to relax, and it's not time to relax. It's time to put the pedal to the metal and continue to get better."

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