Back when Drew Brees returned from a long injury absence in late October, betting markets were ready to crown the New Orleans Saints as NFC champions. But heading into Monday night’s home game against the Indianapolis Colts (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN), serious doubts have been raised about the team’s championship bona fides.
New Orleans ended its temporary Teddy Bridgewater era with a 6-1 record that included road wins at Seattle and Chicago. If Brees were back at 100%, the Saints were clearly in the driver’s seat for the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
A 31-9 rout of Arizona in his return may have created some illusions. A week off followed the Cardinals game. Since the Saints’ bye:
— New Orleans (-14) was shocked by Atlanta 26-9, missing the market by 31 points. The offense managed just 310 yards on 4.9 yards per play while converting only 25% of its third-down tries indoors on a fast track vs. a soft defense.
— New Orleans (-5) won and covered at Tampa Bay 34-17. But it was a “safe” win as the Saints patiently watched Jameis Winston throw four interceptions, one returned for a touchdown. The offense didn’t ignite, gaining 328 yards on 5.1 yards per play.
— New Orleans (-10) was life and death with Carolina in a 34-31 home win. The offense did play well, but the defense wasn’t up to playoff standards against an opponent about to implode.
— New Orleans (-7) won and covered at Atlanta 26-18 on Thanksgiving night. Another turnover win with a 3-0 advantage. The Saints offense gained only 279 yards while converting 20% of third-down tries.
— New Orleans (-1.5) lost at home to San Francisco 48-46 in a fireworks show. The offense did shine against a tired Niners defense that mud-wrestled AFC favorite Baltimore the week before. Another disappointing day for the defense.
More wins than losses, but not vintage New Orleans voodoo.
What might have been most telling about Niners-Saints for the market-savvy is that the point spread stayed under a field goal in the Superdome. Home-field advantage is usually worth three points in the NFL, sometimes more at that particular site. Yet sharps drove the fatigued road dog away from the key number. Rightly so, according to the score and game stats.
A big home win over Indianapolis could help get things back on track. New Orleans will likely close as at least an 8.5- to nine-point favorite. It couldn’t play to high expectations at home vs. the Falcons or Panthers. Indianapolis has been a big dog only once all season, scoring a 19-13 upset in Kansas City getting 10.5.
For now, minds that matter don’t see the Saints as the best in the NFC anymore. Gamblers should be aware that New Orleans won’t be a smart bet in the playoffs if it doesn’t find more consistency on both sides of the ball. You can’t just hope for turnovers in January.