Atlanta – The New Orleans Saints earned their third consecutive NFC South Division title Thanksgiving night in a 26-18 victory over Atlanta in Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The operative word is "earned."
It wasn't as attractive or as clean as other victories have been this season for the Saints (10-2), but it was apropos for this season because it followed the path of twists and turns the season has presented, and the Saints have maneuvered around.
Half of the 10 wins came without their starting quarterback, Drew Brees. Others have come without defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, left guard Andrus Peat, left tackle Terron Armstead and cornerback Marshon Lattimore, among others.
All the Saints have done is chug along, figured out how to win without those starters at various points, and posted a 10-win season for the third straight year. Film study on this one won't be as pleasant as it could be, but it'll be more pleasant than it would have been if the Saints' hadn't clinched the division title at the earliest date in their history.
OFFENSE: It's hard to imagine the Saints winning a game with 14 first downs, 279 yards, 24:23 in time of possession and going 2 of 10 on third down. They did Thursday night, in part because on offense, they didn't turn over the ball and they didn't allow a sack. Now, the numbers would have been substantially more impressive if not for several dropped passes; add four completions – one for a touchdown – and another 80 yards, and Drew Brees' numbers (18 of 30 for 184 yards and a touchdown) would've been more impressive. And the Saints' offense would've produced another 30-plus point game. When Brees says the Saints' best game still is out there, he's not stretching the truth.
DEFENSE: If New Orleans can get away from the self-inflicted wounds on defense, there's no telling what the ceiling will be for the unit. The Saints had nine penalties for 121 yards; included among them were a 15-yard unnecessary roughness foul, a 5-yard illegal hands to the face, and pass interference penalties of 22 and 33 yards on defense. It takes an extraordinary performance otherwise to overcome that, and the Saints had an extraordinary performance otherwise. Three forced turnovers (interceptions by rookie defensive back C.J. Gardner-Johnson and rookie defensive tackle Shy Tuttle, and a fumble recovery by safety Vonn Bell) and nine sacks, including a single-game career high of four by defensive end Cam Jordan, did the trick. New Orleans took away the run (Atlanta ran for 89 yards on 26 carries) and punished quarterback Matt Ryan.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Wil Lutz was his usual self, with four field goals in as many attempts. Thomas Morstead was his usual self, with four punts for a 48.5-yard average. Cover teams were so-so; Kenjon Barner had a 47-yard kickoff return, but didn't have any yards on two punt returns. But clearly, the Saints have an issue to resolve when it comes to fielding onside kicks. The Bears successfully executed two onside kicks against them, and Atlanta was able to execute two more Thursday night. A double-digit game became a one-score nail-biter because New Orleans couldn't recover onside kicks and when Coach Sean Payton called it embarrassing, there's no disputing that characterization. There's going to have to be some serious attention to detail in that area, because that situation is going to come up again. The Saints have to figure out how to handle it.