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Slow start doesn't totally slow down New Orleans Saints in victory over Titans

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New Orleans Saints quarterback Taysom Hill (7) is chased by Tennessee Titans cornerback LeShaun Sims (36) in the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 22, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)

Nashville, Tenn. – The New Orleans Saints have shown enough grit this season that their credentials aren't to be questioned. But, just in case, the Saints on Sunday updated their resume in a 38-28 victory over Tennessee at Nissan Stadium.

New Orleans (12-3) turned a sloppy start into its 12th victory of the season – the first time in franchise history that the team has posted back-to-back 12-win seasons – and kept alive its hopes to claim the No. 1 or 2 seed in the NFC entering the playoffs.

It wasn't the all-around whipping that the Saints administered on Monday night in a 34-7 victory over Indianapolis. But it was good enough to take down the Titans (8-7), who took a 14-0 lead and then watched the Saints storm back, with 24 unanswered points.

OFFENSE: The Saints scored 38 points, were perfect in the red zone (3 of 3) and goal to go (2 of 2). And they weren't all that impressed with it because the start of the game was absolutely nothing to be pleased with. New Orleans fell into that two-touchdown hole in part due to a plethora of pre-snap penalties and missed assignments that the team has been able to eliminate at times this season, but at times has allowed to snatch away headlines. New Orleans put itself into unfavorable down-and-distances and was able to escape several times, but it has to be cleaner than it was Sunday. Still, it did some good things in the run game (Alvin Kamara's 40-yard touchdown run was a perfect audible), Drew Brees was his usual efficient self (27 of 38 for 279 yards and three touchdowns) and Michael Thomas caught 12 passes, giving him 145 this season and the NFL's single-season record with a game left to play. All in all, more good than ill, but the work continues to minimize the ill.

DEFENSE: Same theme as the offense – slow start, pretty good finish, but mistakes that you'd like to see eliminated still playing a small role. New Orleans was bitten on an end around – A.J. Brown ran 49 yards for a touchdown – and that contributed to an uncharacteristic 149 rushing yards allowed, on 26 carries. But the Saints got a lot of grunt work done after that first half, when they allowed 91 yards on 15 carries. Fortunately, New Orleans sacked Ryan Tannehill five times and hurried him, but Tannehill still completed 17 of 27 passes for 272 yards and three touchdowns, without an interception. And the Saints suffered some losses in the secondary, with cornerback Eli Apple (ankle) and safety Marcus Williams (groin) leaving the game. But the patchwork secondary held up – rookie safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson has star makeup – and it may have to hold up again in the regular-season finale, depending on how the injuries respond. There's room to improve on third down (Tennessee converted 5 of 13) but when the Saints needed the defense to hold up, it held up long enough for the offense to score 24 straight points.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Only one negative comes to mind, and that's Justin Hardee dropping a pass from Taysom Hill that would have resulted in a first down off a fake punt. Everything about the play was perfect except that part of the execution. Otherwise, it was another really good day for the unit. Deonte Harries returned five kickoffs for a 48.8-yard average, Wil Lutz made his franchise-record, 32nd field goal of the season and Thomas Morstead pinned two of his five punts inside the 20.

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