The New Orleans Saints entered Sunday's Wild Card playoff game against Chicago about as healthy as they've been in quite some time. It showed on the field during their 21-9 victory, which elevated the Saints (13-4) into a divisional playoff game against Tampa Bay next Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
There were several standout performances that bubbled to the top.
OFFENSE: Almost any other week, Drew Brees would be a shoo-in after completing 28 of 39 passes for 265 yards and two touchdowns against one of the stingiest, toughest defenses in the league. The Bears can be relentlessly punishing to a quarterback. Or, it easily could have been receiver Michael Thomas, who missed nine regular-season games – including the final three – and returned from injured reserve to catch five passes for 73 yards and a touchdown. But who, prior to the game, foresaw Deonte Harris – who hadn't played since Nov. 22 – lead New Orleans in receptions (seven) and receiving yards (83)? He was critical on third down and showed the elusiveness of an elite kick returner when New Orleans was able to isolate him in space. And, just for lagniappe: On the pass attempt that Taysom Hill was sacked and fumbled, Harris, whom he was eyeing, was open deep. He gives New Orleans another offensive weapon, and opposing defenses another player to be concerned about.
DEFENSE: OK, an admission is necessary. I like the guy. I just do. I mean, C.J. Gardner-Johnson perhaps is an acquired taste, but the edge he provides for the Saints' defense is undeniable and magnetic. Yeah, he talks and, absolutely, each and every one of his toes is firmly planted on the "Do Not Cross" line. But he motivates teammates as much as he agitates opponents – and he agitates opponents PLENTY – and he plays some pretty solid football amid the seemingly chaotic marriage of chatter and fury and carrying out assignments. CJGJ came up with a team-leading eight tackles against the Bears, including a fourth-down stop that gave the Saints the ball back, but he also contributed to the ejection of a Bears receiver for the second time in two games against Chicago this season. On Sunday, it was Anthony Miller who was directed to the exit, on a play where he and Gardner-Johnson picked up offsetting unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. Hopefully, he continues to harness his energy and it remains a positive force, because watching him unleash it is fun.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Give this one to the cover units. The Saints nearly blocked two punts (on one, they ran into the kicker but fortunately, there were offsetting penalties) and their own kicking numbers weren't mind-blowing. But the challenge of defending kickoffs against Chicago's Cordarrelle Patterson isn't easy, and he totaled 68 yards on two kickoffs. One was a 42-yarder and, frankly, any day on which Patterson doesn't pop one is a solid day.