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Saints march toward championship caliber status

Jeff Fogle
VSiN City newsletter

The Saints marched into Buffalo as a field goal favorite, then marched out as a very serious threat to win the Super Bowl after a 47-10 battering of the overmatched Bills.

NFL: Saints make a statement, as NFL favorites continue to win almost every game 
For the third straight Sunday, favorites won the scoreboard in a way that erased drama and kept skeptics raving about the excitement of either college football or early season basketball. Chalk is now 28-6 straight up the past three Sundays, 20-12-2 against the spread.

But something very important might have been brewing in Buffalo, where the New Orleans Saints announced authoritatively that they were ready to make a run at the league championship. 

We start this week’s NFL recap with the one-sided stats that were achieved against an opponent many expected to be a dangerous home underdog. 

New Orleans (-2.5) 47, Buffalo 10
Yards-per-Play: New Orleans 6.6, Buffalo 4.4
Third Down Pct: New Orleans 50%, Buffalo 18%
Turnovers: New Orleans 1, Buffalo 1
Rushing Yards: New Orleans 298, Buffalo 69
Passing Stats: New Orleans 18-25-0-184, Buffalo 16-28-1-129
TD Drive Lengths: New Orleans 75-48-75-3-94-44, Buffalo 75

Normally you need a turnover implosion from your opponent to make a run at 50 points. But New Orleans didn’t need much help with a crushing performance across all stats except turnovers (a 1-1 tie). Definitely worth studying those category-by-category…because this was on the ROAD against playoff contender BUFFALO who had EXTRA PREP TIME off a Thursday nighter, and who was also in a bounce-back spot after a disappointing loss. The Saints doing THAT to fresh and motivated Buffalo in Orchard Park is really something special. Almost 300 rushing yards! New Orleans held Buffalo below 200 total yards (198) even with a very late 75-yard garbage time score. 

Must have heard “New Orleans won its seventh straight game” 20 times Sunday afternoon and evening (and probably missed three times that many on channels I wasn’t watching). The key to take from this game isn’t the trivia about “seventh straight.” It’s the road obliteration of a decent rested team that had every reason in the world to show up with a big effort, and got obliterated anyway (Bills were the most popular choice in the Westgate contest). If a baseball player hits a few singles and doubles, then a grand slam home run that wins a game, you don’t yell “that’s his seventh straight hit” as the ball clears the fence. 

Since its bye…
New Orleans beat Detroit 52-38, winning YPP 5.6 to 4.6
New Orleans beat Green Bay 26-17, winning YPP 6.5 to 5.2
New Orleans beat Chicago 20-12, winning YPP 6.4 to 4.7
New Orleans beat Tampa Bay 30-10, winning YPP 6.8 to 3.5
New Orleans beat Buffalo 47-10, wining YPP 6.6 to 4.4

Three defensive TDs inflated their first run at 50 points vs. Detroit. Then, three straight games vs. inexperienced or banged up quarterbacks. Only Green Bay was on the road of the first four listed above. Solid stuff to be sure. Possibly polluted by context. No pollution in Buffalo. In terms of a statistical "profile," that was championship stuff.

At least for a week, New Orleans (now 7-2) rose from “definitely a playoff caliber team” to “definitely a championship caliber team” with such a dominating result (Buffalo falls to 5-4). Drew Brees is now an ace in the hole rather than the guy carrying the whole franchise on his shoulders. A shame it took the Saints so many years to build a real defense! 

The rest of the Sunday card is presented in Nevada rotation order…

Minnesota (-1.5) 38, Washington 30
Yards-per-Play: Minnesota 6.8, Washington 5.4
Third Down Pct: Minnesota 67%, Washington 36%
Turnovers: Minnesota 2, Washington 1
Rushing Yards: Minnesota 102, Washington 81
Passing Stats: Minnesota 21-29-2-304, Washington 26-45-1-313
TD Drive Lengths: Minnesota 75-60-71-25-72, Washington 75-60-2

Tough schedule spot for Washington, after going down to the wire last week in Seattle. The Redskins allowed 437 yards and 5.8 YPP to the Seahawks in a misleadingly low-scoring game there. Here, the dam broke. Minnesota marched up and down the field easily. Both teams had very cheap TDs, so this was more like a 31-24 kind of game. Minnesota moves to 7-2 with the win, and is about as fresh as you can be thanks to a Cleveland-bye-Washington stretch here in mid-November. Plus, they have the motivational backdrop of Teddy Bridgewater returning to the sideline after his horrific leg injury prior to last season. We may have quite a tie-breaker for the two byes in the NFC brackets with the Vikings, Saints, and Rams all at two losses behind the Eagles with one loss. Washington falls to 4-5, which is probably too far off the Wildcard pace in a crowded field. 

Green Bay (plus 4.5) 23, Chicago 16
Yards-per-Play: Green Bay 5.3, Chicago 5.7
Third Down Pct: Green Bay 44%, Chicago 29%
Turnovers: Green Bay 0, Chicago 1
Rushing Yards: Green Bay 160, Chicago 55
Passing Stats: Green Bay 18-25-0-182, Chicago 21-35-0-268
TD Drive Lengths: Green Bay 79-75, Chicago 70

Favorites have been so dominant of late in terms of straight up victories that something like THIS becomes a prominent upset…a rookie QB who isn’t allowed to throw when ahead is laying points at home and can’t get the job done. Mitchell Trubisky was allowed to throw here. But a poor third-down rate and the inability to turn yards into points kept the Bears out of the win column. Poor defensive performance from Chicago, considering its prior form and that of visiting quarterback Brett Hundley. Clean win for the Packers to move to 5-4 and stay longshots for a Wildcard. Chicago falls to 3-6. 

Pittsburgh (-10) 20, Indianapolis 17
Yards-per-Play: Pittsburgh 5.1, Indianapolis 4.8
Third Down Pct: Pittsburgh 38%, Indianapolis 40%
Turnovers: Pittsburgh 1, Indianapolis 2
Rushing Yards: Pittsburgh 88, Indianapolis 79
Passing Stats: Pittsburgh 19-31-1-228, Indianapolis 14-24-1-196
TD Drive Lengths: Pittsburgh 78-10, Indianapolis 68-75

Mixing past themes here…as Pittsburgh mostly took the week off on the road against a lousy opponent that didn’t get its juices flowing…while Indianapolis faded in the second half once a quality opponent was ready to win (Steelers won the 2H 17-7). You should probably throw out the stats for Pittsburgh in these types of games…or at least only use them as guidance the next time they’re on the road against a crappy opponent. They save their playoff caliber efforts (and stats) for the games that matter most (like, possibly, this coming Thursday night game vs. possible playoff opponent Tennessee). Pittsburgh moves to 7-2 despite occasional coasting. Indianapolis is 3-7.

Jacksonville (-4) 20, LA Chargers 17 (in overtime) 
Yards-per-Play: LA Chargers 4.8, Jacksonville 4.9
Third Down Pct: LA Chargers 20%, Jacksonville 28%
Turnovers: LA Chargers 2, Jacksonville 2
Rushing Yards: LA Chargers 87, Jacksonville 135
Passing Stats: LA Chargers 21-37-1-235, Jacksonville 28-51-2-263
TD Drive Lengths: LA Chargers 87-76, Jacksonville 90-84

You know Jacksonville has to win ugly, unless gifted a bunch of cheap points. You know Philip Rivers and the Chargers have a knack for hanging around with opponents until they make a key mistake. Here, both teams traded ugly play late in regulation. Then, Rivers threw an interception to set up Jacksonville’s game-winning field goal in extra time. Both offenses managed two good drives, which is something at least. Jacksonville is 6-3, and will have a chance to matter in the playoffs because great defenses can take you a long way in January. As bad as Blake Bortles is, he’s not really any worse than near-retirement Peyton Manning was in the year the Broncos rode that noodle arm to a Super Bowl appearance. The Chargers are 3-6. 

Tampa Bay (-1) 15, NY Jets 10
Yards-per-Play: NY Jets 4.3, Tampa Bay 4.1
Third Down Pct: NY Jets 20%, Tampa Bay 44%
Turnovers: NY Jets 2, Tampa Bay 1
Rushing Yards: NY Jets 56, Tampa Bay 90
Passing Stats: NY Jets 23-39-1-219, Tampa Bay 17-34-1-181
TD Drive Lengths: NY Jets 70, Tampa Bay 81

Tampa Bay closed a favorite. That game-day money had it right as the Jets didn’t score a TD until trailing 15-3 late in festivities. Ugly stuff from both teams. Tampa Bay did better on third downs, and was slightly safer with the ball given rushing yards and turnover count. Not that 15 points on 4.1 yards-per-play is going to win you a lot of games. Tampa Bay is now 3-6 straight up (2-6-1 ATS after their first cover in awhile). The Jets are 4-6 and will happily begin their bye week.

Tennessee (-4.5) 24, Cincinnati 20
Yards-per-Play: Cincinnati 6.2, Tennessee 5.0
Third Down Pct: Cincinnati 10%, Tennessee 47%
Turnovers: Cincinnati 2, Tennessee 2
Rushing Yards: Cincinnati 53, Tennessee 180
Passing Stats: Cincinnati 20-35-0-255, Tennessee 25-44-1-236
TD Drive Lengths: Cincinnati 75-3-82, Tennessee 84-27-73

Andy Dalton had a 70-yard TD pass to A.J. Green, which warped yards-per-play to an extremely misleading degree. It was 4.9 otherwise. You can see that the Bengals couldn’t move the chains, lost the ball twice, and couldn’t run for much. So, your basic recent Cincinnati performance, but some drama late and a pointspread cover. Both teams had cheap TD’s. The Bengals fall to 3-6. Tennessee is 6-3 and tied with Jacksonville at the top of the AFC South standings. But, they “exploded” out of their bye a few weeks ago to play home field nailbiters against Baltimore and Cincinnnati, which isn’t going to scare any playoff opponents. Big test Thursday in the Steel City. 

Detroit (-10) 38, Cleveland 24
Yards-per-Play: Cleveland 5.4, Detroit 7.0
Third Down Pct: Cleveland 33%, Detroit 45% 
Turnovers: Cleveland 2, Detroit 1
Rushing Yards: Cleveland 201, Detroit 104
Passing Stats: Cleveland 22-40-1-212, Detroit 17-26-1-241
TD Drive Lengths: Cleveland 31-85-80, Detroit 90-75-61-44

You know a defense isn’t exactly breathing fire when they allow 201 rushing yards to the Browns. Detroit was in a short week of a huge divisional win. And the Lions managed to cover the spread anyway, thanks partly to a fumble return TD (the only non-offensive TD Sunday afternoon…remember when Week 6 had 15 non-offensive touchdowns!) Workmanlike win for Detroit, who moves to 5-4 to stay two games behind the Vikings. Cleveland manages to show improvement while still protecting their draft position at 0-9. Help today from the Giants today in that regard, as San Francisco got its first win of the season. 

LA Rams (-12) 33, Houston 7
Yards-per-Play: Houston 4.4, LA Rams 6.7
Third Down Pct: Houston 33%, LA Rams 38%
Turnovers: Houston 4, LA Rams 0
Rushing Yards: Houston 89, LA Rams 104
Passing Stats: Houston 18-36-2-194, LA Rams 26-38-0-339
TD Drive Lengths: Houston 75, LA Rams 96-36-12

Many of the evening studio shows were focused on “big wins for the Saints and Rams.” They really weren’t comparable, since Houston threw in the towel on its season the minute Deshaun Watson was lost. You probably saw the highlight of the 94-yard TD pass. LAR’s other TD drives were very cheap, just 36 and 12 yards. While the Rams are still a legitimate force in the NFC, this was a “turnover” blowout rather than the kind of domination that the Saints inflicted on the Bills. LAR moves to 7-2 on the season, still a game ahead of Seattle (but currently losing the tie-breaker). Houston is 3-6…but a current disaster after losing YPP to Indianapolis 6.1 to 4.3, and today to the Rams 6.7 to 4.4. At least everyone now knows that Tom Savage isn’t an NFL caliber quarterback. There had been some doubt about that even though he’s 27 years old!

Atlanta (-3) 27, Dallas 7
Yards-per-Play: Dallas 3.9, Atlanta 5.2
Third Down Pct: Dallas 45%, Atlanta 54%
Turnovers: Dallas 2, Atlanta 1
Rushing Yards: Dallas 107, Atlanta 132
Passing Stats: Dallas 20-36-0-126, Atlanta 22-29-1-204
TD Drive Lengths: Dallas 21, Atlanta 80-75-72

This was possibly the week the Cowboys missed the playoffs. That might sound harsh. But, they fall to 5-4 in the crowded NFC with this loss, knowing Ezekiel Elliott will miss the next five games. Up next are Philadelphia (in what could be the true “last hurrah” game), LA Chargers, Washington, at NY Giants, at Oakland, Seattle, and at Philadelphia. So, two games with 8-1 Philadelphia, and probably facing Oakland and Seattle when those teams need to win (unless the Raiders fall by the wayside). And they’re going to try to make a run with a defense that blew second-half leads vs. quality earlier in the season, and allowed the previously inconsistent Falcons’ offense to drive for TD’s of 80-75-72 yards today. Can Dallas finish 11-5? Sure, as can other current second or third place teams Carolina, Atlanta (who now owns the tie-breaker over Dallas), Seattle, Detroit, and Green Bay (ditto on the tie-breaker). Looks like five legitimate threats for the two spots, and the Packers aren’t toast yet after today. Atlanta is also 5-4, and has their own headaches left with New Orleans twice, Minnesota, Seattle, and Carolina. Some decent NFC teams are going to be watching the NFC playoffs with the rest of us.

San Francisco (plus 3) 31, NY Giants 21
Yards-per-Play: NY Giants 5.9, San Francisco 8.2
Third Down Pct: NY Giants 36%, San Francisco 67%
Turnovers: NY Giants 1, San Francisco 2
Rushing Yards: NY Giants 114, San Francisco 186
Passing Stats: NY Giants 28-37-0-260, San Francisco 19-25-1-288
TD Drive Lengths: NY Giants 75-90, San Francisco 85-76-61-62

This was Sunday's other "upset." Whether you pick the narrative of NYG creatively moving ahead of SF in the race for draft picks by losing a tie-breaker heads up, or the narrative of the players hating the head coach so much that they’re trying to embarrass him…what you see above is a defense that let C.J. Beathard move the ball at will on four TD drives greater than 60 yards. In Beathard’s other starts, SF managed 4.5, 3.7, and 4.5 yards-per-play, flopping trips with 10-10-10 on the scoreboard. Both teams are tied in the win column…NYG 1-8, compared to SF 1-9. If they both lose out (which SF may not do since it has Jimmy Garappolo ready to go after a bye), the Giants get the better spot. 

New England (-7.5) 41, Denver 16
Yards-per-Play: New England 5.9, Denver 5.6
Third Down Pct: New England 36%, Denver 53%
Turnovers: New England 0, Denver 2
Rushing Yards: New England 99, Denver 118
Passing Stats: New England 28-37-0-297, Denver 18-33-1-221
TD Drive Lengths: New England 24-75-75-94, Denver 75

New England started off as the better team, obviously…then picked up a cheap early TD off a fumbled punt return, and then a kickoff return TD. Tom Brady doesn’t need that kind of help because he knows how to engineer drives and finish them off. Brock Osweiler at least drove for some field goals (and then a TD after falling way behind). Nothing was learned here. But, it is a textbook boxscore for showing how safe and efficient New England plays, and then how inexperienced QB’s like Osweiler have trouble putting points on the board even if they can make some plays in the middle of the field. New England is 7-2. Denver is 3-6, but a doormat for more than a month (losing by 13, 21, 10, 28, and 25 points their last five outings). 

Today’s “Big Money Monday” showcase is Miami at Carolina. A full game preview (plus additional stats and trends) for that matchup is available in Point Spread Weekly. Be sure you join VSiN programming all day for comprehensive coverage of Dolphins/Panthers, and the big changes in college and pro futures prices after a blockbuster sports weekend. 

Back Tuesday with updated “market” Power Ratings in the NFL, a stat summary from Miami/Carolina, and a preview for the huge college basketball doubleheader featuring #1 Duke vs. #2 Michigan State and #4 Kansas vs. #5 Kentucky.

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