By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) – If you’re the New Orleans Saints, you’d love to be happy
about your first-place standing in the jumbled NFC South with seven games to
But then you look at your record – 4-5 – and reality begins to creep in.
“In this league, you have to earn them each week,” coach Sean Payton said.
“There’s a number of games we won referencing other seasons, that easily could
have went a different direction. It’s what drives you to get back to practice
and get back to prepare and focus quickly on the best way to correct it. We
have to continue to be teaching. We have to continue to covering the details
and understand that this is a different team.”
New Orleans stumbled from the gate at 2-4, but whipped Green Bay and Carolina
in weeks 8 and 9 to get back to .500 and regain the look of a would-be NFC
contender. A Week 10 loss in overtime to San Francisco, however, again dipped
the record below break-even and ended an 11-0 run at home.
The 49ers converted on a fourth down with less than two minutes remaining on a
drive that tied the game, then pounced on a Drew Brees fumble in New Orleans
territory in the extra session and ultimately kicked a decisive field goal.
The Saints have turned the ball over 18 times in nine games, and have led in
the fourth quarter of four of their five losses. Brees has 10 interceptions
this season after throwing 12 in all of 2013.
“Something’s got to get fixed,” he said. “I’m not happy about it. I can’t turn
the ball over at the rate I’m turning it over and I can’t turn it over in the
situations that I’m turning it over. I’m aware of that.”
When it’s successful, the offense remains capable of big numbers.
New Orleans is second in the league in total yardage (435.0 yards per game)
and third in passing yardage (304.8 yards per game). It’ll face a Cincinnati
defense this week that will likely be without linebacker Vontaze Burfict after
he underwent knee surgery in late October. Another linebacker, Rey Maualuga,
is questionable with a hamstring problem that’s kept him out of four games.
The absences haven’t helped the Bengals statistically at all.
In fact, Cincinnati is now allowing yardage at a 391.9 rate per week, third
from last in the league.
“We don’t have to turn anything, but turn ourselves, and right the ship, and
go get ready to play in New Orleans,” coach Marvin Lewis said. “We’ve got to
go back and play football our way. We lost the football game. We didn’t fall
off a cliff.”
Cincinnati was the league’s last unbeaten team at 3-0, but was humbled, 43-17,
by New England in a Sunday night game in Week 5 and has gone a pedestrian 2-2
since. The Bengals scored 27 and 33 points in wins over Baltimore and
Jacksonville, but managed a combined three in losses to Indianapolis and
The loss to the Browns last week dropped them behind the Browns in the AFC
Running back Giovani Bernard remains doubtful with a hip injury, though first-
year man Jeremy Hill has managed 209 rushing yards and 5.8 yards per carry in
the last two games. Bernard, who has 625 yards from scrimmage and has scored
five times, did not practice on Wednesday.
Wide receiver A.J. Green, on the other hand, is expected to play for a third
straight week after missing three games with a foot problem. He’s caught six
passes for 67 yards and a touchdown in that pair.
Aerial mate Mohamed Sanu caught just two balls against the Browns, but has
registered the NFL’s 10th-best yardage total in the last five weeks – since
Green’s initial injury.
Quarterback Andy Dalton completed just 10 of 33 passes for 86 yards and was
intercepted three times against Cleveland. His 2.0 passer rating for the game
was fifth-worst in league history in a game with 30 or more passes, and it
predictably ratcheted up the scrutiny on a player who signed a six-year, $115
million contract in August.
He’s on pace to fewer than 20 touchdowns for the first time in his career –
now in its fourth season – and also trending toward 800 fewer yards than last
season, which would be the first time he’s not exceeded the yardage total of
the prior season.
“We’ve got to find a way to be consistent,” Dalton said. “We haven’t been in
the losses. That’s what it comes down to. Every week we have to come to play.
We have to find a way to do that.”
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Browns wreaked havoc on a typically prolific Cincinnati quarterback by
expertly disguising the way that their safeties would be utilized, sometimes
right up until the snap of the ball. Upon the snap, they’d rotate positions
and ultimately forced Dalton into the single worst game of his career and one
of the worst by an NFL starter in decades. The Saints, however, are just 24th
in the league in pass defense.
Work Your Weapons
Whether he’s in a funk or not, it’s clear that Brees has options to help share
the load. His run game has been buffeted recently by the re-emergence of
former college star Mark Ingram, who’s averaged 27 carries and 131 yards in
his last three games. Ingram’s 4.8 yards per carry is ninth in the league. And
then there’s always tight end Jimmy Graham, who leads the team in catches (56)
and yards (594).
At this point, it might come down to which team would you least like to be?
Brees and the Saints have been a season-long enigma, while Dalton and the
Bengals clearly haven’t been the same since the 26-point whipping administered
by the Patriots in early October. When it comes to possible tie-breakers, look
no further than the fact that New Orleans rarely loses at home. Translation:
Brees gets it done late.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Saints 27, Bengals 23