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SURGING SAINTS CAN WIN SUPER BOWL

Saints

With less than six minutes remaining in regulation, the New Orleans Saints found themselves in a seemingly unwinnable situation. Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins connected with reserve tight end Jeremy Sprinkle in the end zone, extending the Saints' deficit to 15 points in a game they never led. With little time and no momentum, Drew Brees and the offense took over.

In previous years, the Saints would have lost this game, lacking the defense to stop the bleeding and the balance on the other side of the ball to put together successive scoring drives in the clutch. But, like much of the Saints' 2017 season, Sunday's contest unfolded a little differently.

Brees led a furious eight-play, three-minute drive to deliver the Saints' first touchdown since the opening quarter. New Orleans defense followed suit by forcing a punt from Washington in just three plays and, critically, one minute. Brees had New Orleans in the end zone just four plays later with rookie sensation Alvin Kamara running in the two-point conversion to secure the tie and force overtime.

From there, the Saints went on cruise control. The New Orleans defense didn't give up a single yard on Washington's first and only possession of overtime. Mark Ingram took care of business from there, picking up 51 yards on back-to-back carries to set up Wil Lutz's game-winning field goal. Despite facing a 98.8 percent chance of defeat just minutes earlier, the New Orleans walked away with the victory.

The Saints might not produce an uglier victory the rest of the season, but the standings don't reward style points. At 8-2, they sit atop the NFC South and just behind the Eagles for the best record in the conference. The Saints also became the first team in the Super Bowl era to lose their first two games and win their next eight. More importantly, they continue to demonstrate that this year's team might have the best chance at a championship since the one that won it all eight years ago.

The modern Saints came into existence in 2006, the product of a wildly successful offseason that brought together Brees, head coach Sean Payton and several key draft selections. That nucleus developed into one of the fiercest teams in the league, pairing an explosive, creative offensive attack with a capable defense predicated on halting the pass. That approach produced the franchise's first Lombardi Trophy in 2009, and New Orleans has attempted to replicate the formula every year since then.

However, poor roster management dragged down the Saints over the subsequent seasons. General manager Mickey Loomis regularly dived headfirst into free agency, investing in win-now moves that didn't pan out and exhausted the team's cap space and flexibility. Loomis also failed to replenish his talent through the draft, missing on high selections like Patrick Robinson, Charles Brown, Stanley Jean-Baptiste and others while dealing away picks regularly. While the rest of the NFC South grew stronger -- the Panthers and Falcons combined to win all but one division title since 2010 and each reached the Super Bowl during the span -- the Saints grew more one dimensional, still lighting up the scoreboard but losing nearly as often as they won.

The Saints still make personnel mistakes, but this time around they have chosen to acknowledge errors rather than compound them with stubbornness. When it became clear that former All-Pro running back Adrian Peterson didn't fit New Orleans' scheme or culture, Loomis unloaded him for a conditional late-round pick in order to free up opportunities for Ingram and Kamara.

That move unlocked the potential of the offense, giving Brees his first true complement since the heyday of Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush. Ingram has become an efficient, all-purpose back, a player capable of grinding out yards up the middle as well as hauling in passes along the sidelines. In just 10 games, Kamara has developed into his mirror image, a dazzling runner in the open field with the receiving skills of a seasoned wideout. Now, the Saints can win games with Brees attempting 30 or fewer passes, a feat that never occurred once last season but has already happened five times in 2017.

Meanwhile, the Saints defense has shown remarkable improvement as well. After finishing no better than 31st in DVOA over the past three seasons, the unit ranked fifth through the first 10 weeks of 2017, a spectacular and completely unexpected development that has quietly spurred New Orleans' winning streak. If the Saints maintain this dominant play the rest of the way, the defense could rank as the best of the Brees-Payton era. Combined with the expanded versatility of its offensive counterpart, the Saints have become one of the most complete teams in football.

For the Saints, the path through the NFC looks clearer than in any recent season. Injuries have decimated the Packers and Seahawks, the conference's two most consistent teams since New Orleans' last Super Bowl, and the Cowboys have looked like anything but a contender since losing Ezekiel Elliott to a six-game suspension.

Among the division leaders, the Vikings hold a head-to-head advantage from the season opener, but the Saints own the better record. The Rams have played inconsistently despite their 7-3 record, and New Orleans gets the chance to knock them off their perch next weekend. The Eagles continue to dominate against top competition, but the Saints could still conceivably catch them in the standings.

Inside the Saints' division, the Falcons have yet to replicate their record-setting offense of a year ago, and the Bucs are just 4-6. The Saints have already defeated the 7-3 Panthers once this season and host the second matchup in the Superdome.

Between the favorable division outlook and the diminished amount of competition elsewhere in the conference, the NFC presently looks like a four-team race between the division leaders, with no clear winner. The Saints don't have the inside track to the top seed, but they should feel confident after their eighth straight victory. If New Orleans can continue its winning ways and secure the No. 1 seed, no team in the conference would stand a better chance of reaching Super Bowl LII.

Jason B. Hirschhorn
SportsonEarth.com

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