NFL forecast: Payton, Saints marching to top of NFC South

By Matt Youmans  (VSiN senior editor) 

December 24, 2017 01:37 AM
Sean Payton is coaching a team with a new and improved identity. New Orleans has been the best team in the NFC South for the past two months, and the Saints can close the deal Sunday.
© USA Today Sports Images

A year ago, the window seemed to be shut on Drew Brees and Sean Payton in New Orleans, where seven-win seasons and rotten defenses had become the norm. But in a surprise, Payton returned as coach, and something exceptional has happened.

Eight years after winning their first Super Bowl, the Saints are contenders again. And, in a surprising twist, the window is open because of their defense and ground attack, not solely because of Brees.

With its new identity, New Orleans has been the best team in the NFC South for the past two months, but that will be spilled beer on Bourbon Street if the Saints choke down the stretch. The final two weeks will determine who gets the title and a home playoff game. Atlanta (9-5) is in the conference’s No. 6 spot behind the fourth-seeded Saints (10-4) and fifth-seeded Carolina Panthers (10-4).

In one of the NFL’s underrated rivalries, the Saints need to settle a score Sunday and stop a three-game losing skid to the Falcons.

Seventeen days after Atlanta escaped with a sloppy 20-17 victory, the stakes are raised for the rematch in New Orleans. Brees needs to be better than Matt Ryan, and neither veteran quarterback has been great this season. Brees blew the first meeting by forcing a throw into a tight window in the end zone. The result was a game-ending interception.

For the most part, Brees’ numbers are strong. He leads the NFL in completion percentage (71.8), will soon top 4,000 yards again and has 21 touchdowns with seven picks. Brees and Tom Brady are tied for No. 2 in passer rating, and Brady might be the MVP. Michael Thomas (94 receptions, 1,085 yards) has emerged as Brees’ favorite target and a fantasy star.

But this matchup is about identity. While the Falcons have appeared phony all season, running backs Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara have emerged as the Saints’ real go-to guys in a much more physical ground attack. New Orleans ranks No. 1 in total offense (401.5 yards per game) and No. 11 in total defense (328.4).

A key player for the Saints will be rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore, who’s strong enough to handle Julio Jones. The Falcons won the first meeting with Jones getting five catches for 98 yards on a night when Ryan threw three interceptions. Ryan has been shaky since the fourth quarter of a memorable game in February.

The Saints should get their revenge in the Superdome, so lay 5½ points with a focused favorite.

Four more guesses for Week 16 (home team in CAPS):

* TITANS (plus-6½) over Rams: These two teams are in playoff contention only because Jeff Fisher built the foundations for success. Not really, but that’s his story and he’s sticking to it. Tennessee has its problems, and quarterback Marcus Mariota’s struggles are one, but the Titans are 5-1 at home and still in the hunt. No question, Los Angeles is better on both sides of the ball. But it’s fair to call this a tough spot for the Rams, who just emerged from a five-week stretch of games against Minnesota, New Orleans, Philadelphia and Seattle. This line is inflated due to the 42-7 beating the Rams just put on the Seahawks.

* Browns (plus-6) over BEARS: Cleveland is a play in this column for the first time all season. This is also an anti-John Fox play. Fox is 0-7 straight up as a favorite as Chicago coach, and that fact alone makes this a fascinating matchup with the winless Browns.

* Bills (plus-12) over PATRIOTS: Three weeks after Rob Gronkowski’s cheap shot, Buffalo gets its shot at revenge. The Bills are on the road to the playoffs, believe it or not, by winning three of their past four with Tyrod Taylor back as the starting quarterback. Taylor and running back LeSean McCoy should make the ‘dog surprisingly competitive. The Bills won in New England in two of the past three seasons.

* Seahawks (plus-5) over COWBOYS: Ezekiel Elliott’s return is the big story. Dallas will ride last year’s NFL rushing leader for 20-plus carries against a beat-up Seattle defense. The Seahawks will bank on Russell Wilson coming to the rescue in an NFC playoff elimination game. Wilson ranks second in the league with 30 touchdown passes. Maybe the window is closing on the Seahawks, but bet on a good team bouncing back from an embarrassing loss.

Last week: 2-1-2 against the spread

Season: 40-29-6

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