NEW ORLEANS -- Until Sunday's dramatic win against the previously undefeated Atlanta Falcons, I thought the New Orleans Saints were simply the Black and Fool's Gold.
Shiny to the eye because of Drew Brees and a prolific offense but ultimately worthless when put through a litmus test.
Now, after the gut-wrenching 31-27 victory against the Dirty Birds punctuated by a late, improbable goal-line stand, I'm beginning to think the Saints will make it interesting all the way to Dec. 30. That is, as long as they continue to bend but don't break on defense and efficiently run the football on offense as they have the past two games.
Chris Ivory is a beast.
Mark Ingram is showing signs of life.
And Pierre Thomas, well, is Pierre Thomas. Call his number and he'll deliver, anywhere, anytime.
My question is: Where does Darren Sproles fit in the running back rotation once he comes back from a broken hand? Answer: Have him return kicks and punts and make him a third-down back in passing situations. But continue to feed the rock to Ivory and Ingram on first and second downs and let them impose their will.
Saints interim coach Joe Vitt uttered a compelling insight to members of the Falcons media on a conference call last week, saying he thought the Saints had "under utilized'' both Ivory and Ingram during his six-game suspension.
Heck, Ivory didn't make it on to the field until Game 8 and arm-chair quarterbacks can predict with regularity the use of Ingram between the tackles when he enters the game.
Look, the 4-5 Saints still have a tall mountain to climb to reach the postseason with upcoming games at Oakland on Sunday, at home against San Francisco (Nov. 25) and back-to-back road games against Atlanta (NFL Network, Nov. 29) and the New York Giants (Dec. 9).
-- With consecutive games against three NFC division leaders looming, beating the Raiders (3-6) is Job 1. A loss would be devastating.
-- After beating Oakland, winning two of three against the 49ers, Falcons and Giants would leave the Saints at 7-6 with very winnable games remaining against Tampa Bay, at Dallas and Carolina to close out the regular season.
The bottom line is the Saints likely must go 3-1 (no worse than 2-2) over their next four games to stay in the playoff hunt. No ifs, ands or buts about it. Can they do it? Anything is possible. They are playing with a swagger, reminiscent of the glory days under Coach Sean Payton.
The defense seems to have accepted the notion that they will never crack the top 20 this season in yards and points yielded. But, as long as middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, cornerback Jabari Greer and their defensive mates make timely stops, create turnovers and play with grit and resolve against the run, who cares where they rank league wide.
In 2009, the Saints entered the postseason with the NFL's 26th-ranked defense in terms of total yards and somehow it was good enough to capture the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
The Saints don't need to be among the NFL's top rushing offenses. As long as the running game continues to complement the passing game, Brees and Co. will continue to fly the friendly skies and rack up frequent flyer points.
That still may not be enough to help them claim the No. 6 seed, the second wildcard in the NFC.
One thing is certain: If the Black and Gold don't come up big on defense and run the ball efficiently, they will not be playing in January. And this recent 4-1 stretch will be nothing more than Fool's Gold.
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