METAIRIE, LA. — The New Orleans Saints have reached the halfway point of their season as the hottest team in the NFL.
They are 7-1 after winning seven in a row, the longest winning streak in the NFL, thanks to them knocking off the 8-0 Los Angeles Rams 45-35 on Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
But on Monday, coach Sean Payton wasn’t interested in any sort of “halfway reports cards or any of that” as his team prepares to visit Cincinnati next Sunday. The Saints have a one-game lead on Carolina atop the NFC South.
“There’s eight games left. In other words, there is a ton of football left,” Payton said. “There are a ton of things we have to improve on and we need to improve on, or it is going to hurt us later.”
Payton harped on New Orleans’ red zone defense, pointing out that the Saints rank last in the NFL in percentage of red zone possessions that result in touchdowns for opponents (78 percent).
“That that has to get better,” Payton said. “Those numbers — you can’t find any team having success later in the season with the numbers that we currently have. We have to find a way to improve that.
“That is the one area that is bothering me relative to where we are at. That is an area that has to get better for us to have success as a team.”
The Saints did better than their average against L.A. though, as five Rams trip into the red zone yielded three touchdowns and one field goal.
The most important sequence came in the second quarter when the Rams recovered a fumble by Mark Ingram II at the New Orleans 22, but stalled at the 16 and turned the ball over on downs when a fake field goal failed, leaving the score tied at 14.
As for the offense, the Saints had a season-high in points and they exceeded the four-quarter totals they had in an overtime win at Atlanta that featured the previous season-high in yards and time of possession.
New Orleans’ win Sunday was its fourth in as many games against teams that were in first place at the time of the meeting. Those four teams also featured some of the better defenses in the NFL. Prior to the Rams the Saints had most recently faced the Redskins, Ravens and Vikings.
“I think that we’ve (faced) a string of good defenses,” center Max Unger said. “I think that we’ve been able to stick to the game plan that we’ve all wanted to and we’ve been able to execute it and that is running the ball effectively on early downs and sticking to it throughout the game. We are getting enough production early on to be able to carry the momentum and being able to run the ball later in the game as a positive.
“Our numbers were not where we wanted them to be (on third downs) earlier in the season and they’re turning in the right direction. That’s something that we historically have been very good at and this year it’s not where we need them to be, so that’s probably the number one thing that we need to improve on.”
–LB Manti Te’o is normally a starter, but he was a healthy inactive against the Rams. Te’o plays the middle in the Saints base defense, but comes off the field for the nickel and dime packages. New Orleans’ game plan against L.A. was to play almost exclusively nickel, so Te’o didn’t fit into the game plan. “(The decision was based) “strictly on the type of team we were playing,” Payton said. “We brought up an extra corner and (were) down the one linebacker. Had nothing to do with how (Te’o) is playing.”
–LB Alex Anzalone was a big part of the game plan in Te’o’s absence. He was the only active backup behind the remaining starters — Demario Davis and A.J. Klein. Anzalone, a second-year player who was a starter before missing most of his rookie season because of a shoulder injury, came up with his first career interception in the second quarter, leading to a Saints touchdown.
–CB P.J. Williams was a big-play contributor for a second consecutive week. A week earlier against Minnesota he was beaten a few times, but forced a fumble that led to a touchdown and returned an interception for another touchdown in a 30-20 victory. Against the Rams he had a hand in two key stops as the Saints held the Rams scoreless on their final two possessions after L.A. had tied the game midway through the fourth quarter. After New Orleans took a 38-35 lead, Williams tackled Cooper Kupp for a 2-yard gain on third-and-9, forcing a punt. After the Saints extended the lead to 10 points, Williams broke up a pass on fourth and 2, which was L.A.’s final offensive play of the game.
–K Wil Lutz came through with a season-long field goal when a miss could have made a huge difference. After the Rams tied the score at 35, Lutz made the tie-breaking kick with 6:28 remaining. Had he missed, the score would have remained tied and L.A. would have started its next possession from its own 44 with the momentum of having scored two touchdowns and a field goal on its previous three possessions of the second half. Lutz has made his last 14 field-goal attempts.
–RB Alvin Kamara continued to have a significant impact as both a runner and a receiver. He scored three touchdowns — two rushing and one receiving. That was his third three-touchdown game of the season. His first touchdown of the game was his 10th of the season, making him just the third Saint to have consecutive seasons with 10 touchdowns. He is the only Saint to accomplish that feat in his first two seasons.