The New Orleans Saints didn't get to choose where the bye week fell on their schedule. They only had a hand in making sure it was well earned.
With a 7-1 record, a two-game lead (in the loss column) in the NFC South Division and having displayed a level of resilience that long will be remembered, New Orleans did just that, capping the first half of the season with a 31-9 victory over Arizona in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday.
New Orleans played five full games without Drew Brees, its future Hall of Fame quarterback, when Brees tore a ligament in his right thumb. It won all five of them – three against playoff teams from last season (the Seahawks, Cowboys and Bears) – and then, when Brees returned Sunday, it ran away and hid from the Cardinals in the second half by a 21-3 margin.
Brees completed 34 of 43 passes for 373 yards and three touchdowns, with an interception, as the offense posted a season-high 510 yards, and the defense had four sacks and held its fifth consecutive opponent to 257 yards or less (Arizona totaled 237).
"There are a lot of things to be pleased about, knowing the way that schedule kind of unfolded," Coach Sean Payton said Monday. "We felt like we were going to play some tough teams early, playoff teams early, challenging West Coast road trip (back-to-back road games against the Rams and Seahawks).
"Given the circumstances with Drew's injury, I just think there are a lot of things that are encouraging as a coach, and yet, a lot of things we can still continue to do to get better. But I thought the Seattle win was an important one for our club, and I think that confidence then bled over into the following weeks.
"I think we're playing very well defensively right now, and offensively yesterday, situationally, third-down (7 of 12) and red-zone (4 of 6), those were encouraging numbers.
"You're kind of what your record is, and we're 7-1 right now. We get into more division play when we get back. I think those early games when we return are four (division games) right in a row, And then a real good 49ers team, a real good Colts team. I think overall, the bye comes at a good time."
When the Saints return to work, cornerback P.J. Williams' two-game suspension will have expired, and two offensive starters – running back Alvin Kamara and tight end Jared Cook – might be ready to return to the lineup after missing the last two games with injuries.
It also will give Brees more practice time, though, in his first game action since Sept. 15, he displayed little to no rust.
"He was sharp," Payton said. "I thought he located the ball well. He had a good week of practice. He really threw it well in practice, and I thought in the game, the same way. The one interception was a play he'd want back but overall, not having played in five weeks, six weeks, I thought he did a good job."
Payton said that Brees' execution and accuracy Sunday resulted from intense preparation.
"He didn't just arrive at the stadium yesterday and start throwing," Payton said. "There's a process. He was on very diligent rehab and the throwing and all the things that go into that gradually increased, and then I knew he threw last Monday. Felt really good about how he threw last Monday.
"And then we visited and we prepared and he was ready to really take most of the reps and start. He wasn't going to play if he wasn't 100 percent. He understands exactly where we're at as a team and we just communicated, paid close attention to it. It looked good, he felt good and I don't think there was a hiccup relative to the decision to start him.
"I've said that all along – when he's cleared medically and he's with no restrictions and he's playing, then that's the week. We don't look at it at like, 'Well, we have a bye.' That was an important game yesterday. That's an important game relative to what we're trying to accomplish."
Part of the goal is to win the division title for the third consecutive year; the Saints never had won back-to-back division titles until last year. And in addition to the team doing its part to take a step in that direction Sunday, Payton said the fans also held up their end.
"Their offense is one that, in a perfect world, they like to use the clap cadence where the quarterback claps and the center hears it," he said of Arizona. "And that can be effective on the road.
"But they're also an offense that relies on communication at the line, from the line, from the sideline. And I thought – well, I saw it first-hand – I thought (the crowd) made it very difficult. I saw the quarterback walking up to the running backs a lot, and I think it was challenging on them. I think that environment – really, if you looked at who they'd played to date – was easily the loudest environment they'd played in."