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New Orleans Saints running in right direction as playoffs near

Saints have averaged 171.2 rushing yards in last five games

Game action photos from the New Orleans Saints vs. Minnesota Vikings matchup on Christmas Day in Week 16 of the 2020 NFL season.
Game action photos from the New Orleans Saints vs. Minnesota Vikings matchup on Christmas Day in Week 16 of the 2020 NFL season.

The touchdowns were the outlier.

Seven rushing touchdowns – an NFL record-tying six by running back Alvin Kamara – were the unmistakable glitter in the New Orleans Saints' 52-33 victory over Minnesota on Christmas Day, even more so than the eye-catching cleats Kamara wore during the feat.

But the ground-game production – 264 yards on 45 carries – aligned with some of the recent outputs by the Saints (11-4), who won their fourth straight NFC South Division title and retain designs on capturing the No. 1 seed for the playoffs. New Orleans will finish the regular season Sunday against Carolina (5-10) at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C.

Minnesota was the third opponent in the last five games against whom the Saints have run for 200-plus yards, including 229 yards and four touchdowns on 44 carries against Denver on Nov. 29, and 207 yards and a touchdown on 36 carries against Atlanta on Dec. 6.

New Orleans inarguably is running in the right direction as it enters the postseason.

"Running the football does a lot of things," quarterback Drew Brees said Monday. "Obviously, it allows you to really control the line of scrimmage. It sets up your play-action passing game. Typically, if you run the ball well, you're talking four or five yards a pop, it's allowing you to really control the tempo of the game. Time of possession becomes really something in your favor, because you're chewing up the clock.

"And I think it just – over time, there's an attrition. It wears defenses down. When you talk about having to defend that type of a run game over the course of three, four quarters, I think that's when you really start to see the benefit of it as well."

The Saints are leaning on opponents to the tune of 140.6 rushing yards per game, seventh best in the league. In the last five, as the team surged toward clinching a playoff berth and winning the division title, New Orleans is up to 171.2 yards per game on 32.4 carries, an average of 5.3 yards per carry. And the total includes 20 carries for 96 yards against Philadelphia and 17 for a season-low 60 against Kansas City.

The crowning achievement was Christmas Day, when the Saints dominated the line of scrimmage against the Vikings.

"It was a fun game for us," right tackle Ryan Ramczyk said. "Really got after it in the running game, obviously, coming off to the sideline, big smiles. It was a fun game and I think every one of us enjoyed it. We were all clicking together.

"Definitely kind of a mentality of imposing your will. We take a lot pride in the run game and protecting Drew. But we take a lot of pride in the run game and getting after it. That was a big key going into (the game), running the ball and physicality. I'm just happy we did a good job with that."

Kamara had runs of 11 and 40 yards, the latter for his first touchdown, on the six-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to open the game. He added another 11-yarder, Latavius Murray danced his way to a 21-yarder, Emmanuel Sanders gained 12 on a sweep, and Taysom Hill and Kamara chipped in 9-yarders as New Orleans continually created openings. It helped the Saints control the clock, with a time of possession of 36:47.

"I think most importantly, it allows you control of the game, which is a little different than when you're throwing it effectively," Coach Sean Payton said. "Even when you're throwing it, an incompletion stops the clock – there are elements that you don't control. But when you're running the football efficiently, it gives you that added control of how you want the game to unfold."

Christmas Day, it unfolded in such a way that Kamara cleaned up. It added to the growing, glowing portfolio of the four-year veteran, who has a franchise-record 21 touchdowns this season and a personal-best 932 rushing yards, and also has a career-high 83 receptions.

"He knows football," Brees said of Kamara. "He knows about a lot of things. He's just one of those guys that can hear something one time, and he's got it.

"There's some guys who need to be able to rep something a few times before it becomes ingrained. I'm kind of one of those guys. I'm a rep guy; I like reps, I like feeling, timing and rhythm and just doing it kind of over and over again to get the feel of something and a confidence with something.

"And Alvin is one of those guys who, you can just tell him something – he doesn't necessarily even need to get out there and rep it – and he's got it. He'll remember it, he'll retain it, and that's a rare trait."

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