Veteran linebacker Craig Robertson, who emerged as a surprise starter in his first season with New Orleans, uses words like “confidence” and “trust” when he describes the Saints’ transformation from an 0-3 team to a resurgent playoff hopeful that has won four of five games.
As important as improved chemistry was bound to be for a team with its share of young players and recently acquired journeymen, it might take more than that to see the Saints through an upcoming two-game stretch that could either validate their recent run of winning form, or send them stumbling back to the ranks of playoff long shot.
New Orleans hosts defending Super Bowl champion Denver on Sunday, then plays the following Thursday night at defending NFC champion Carolina, which has won two straight since a surprising 1-5 start.
“You know what it is — you have two physical teams, two physical battles,” Saints running back Mark Ingram said. “You just know mentally you have to be prepared and physically you have to be prepared.”
For the third straight season, and the fifth time since 2007, New Orleans is 4-4 following a start of 1-3 or worse.
On the four previous occasions the Saints rallied from a poor start to climb back to .500, they were unable to sustain their mid-season momentum and faded down the stretch.
But coach Sean Payton and his players sound dismissive of any attempt to compare the 2016 Saints to those of failed seasons past.
“It’s a new year, a new team,” said Ingram, who rushed for 158 yards, including a 75 yard touchdown, and also caught a short TD pass in a 41-23 victory at San Francisco on Sunday. “We’ve got a lot of guys with great character, a lot of guys with resilience. I feel like our team’s getting closer. We all love each other.”
Halfway through its season, the Saints have at least produced the resume of a competitive team. Of the four teams that have beaten New Orleans, two (Atlanta and Oakland) are division leaders, while the other two (Kansas City and the New York Giants) are second-place teams with winning records. Only New Orleans’ loss to Atlanta was by more than six points. The other three came down to the final possession.
Yet, of the four teams New Orleans has beaten, only one — Seattle — has a winning record. Three of their victories were by five or fewer points. New Orleans’ double-digit defeat of the Niners was only the latest of several lopsided losses for San Francisco.
“I don’t try to look at the quality of wins or losses,” Payton said. “It’s in the rear-view mirror, really, and we’ve just got to learn from the mistakes.”
And the Saints made mistakes in San Francisco, particularly on defense. Niners QB Colin Kaepernick had his best performance this season with 398 yards passing — second most of his career — including touchdown passes of 47 yards to DuJuan Harris and 65 yards to Vance McDonald. If the Saints’ defense hadn’t come up with four turnovers, including Robertson’s early interception that set up a New Orleans TD, Sunday’s game could have been much tighter.
“Their explosive plays were mistakes on our end,” Robertson said “We’re still growing as a defense, week by week, mixing together, and you’re going to have that where you just have mistakes like that. But it’s our job as a defense to limit those mistakes because mistakes in this league go for touchdowns.”
In the meantime, the Saints have managed to reduce pressure on their defense by keeping their offense on the field with time-consuming drives that have featured an improving ground game. In a victory over Seattle two games ago, Tim Hightower became the Saints’ first running back this season to rush for more than 100 yards. On Sunday, Ingram became the second as New Orleans finished with 248 yards on the ground. And quarterback Drew Brees still managed to pass for 323 yards and three TDs.
“This team is playing complementary football,” Robertson said. “Our offense did a great job of running the ball, controlling the clock and letting us have time to rest. And when you have that, you have a chance to be good when it’s time for you to get back on the field again.”