The New Orleans Saints have finished the first half of their season strong, going into their bye week with a one-sided road victory over the Carolina Panthers.
The 34-3 win was the team's strongest performance of the year on both sides of the ball. Quarterback Drew Brees completed 27 of his 43 passes (63%) to eight different receivers for 253 yards, a pair of touchdowns and an interception. The Saints second-strong running back committee (minus its two super stars who continue to recover from injuries) racked up 165 yards on the ground, including a 54 yard run by late-addition Julius Jones. 2010 third-round draft pick Jimmy Graham hauled in his first touchdown catch of his professional career after having one taken away from him in Tampa a few weeks ago.
Kicker Garrett Hartley was once again perfect booting two field goals (31, 36 yards) and all four extra points.
And while the offense showed the latest flash in 2010 season of their former selves, it was the defensive players who were the stars of the show.
Facing three (3!) quarterbacks, the Black and Gold defense held the Panthers to a season low in points scored. Cornerback Jabari Greer victimized Carolina quarterback Jimmy Clausen with a 24-yard pick-six, the first for any member of the Saints defense this season. Linebacker Jonathan Vilma forced a fumble that was recovered by free-agent defensive end Alex Brown. Strong safety Roman Harper, cornerback (!) Leigh Torrence, defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis and defensive end Jeff Charleston each had a sack. Harper also led the team in tackles with nine.
After disappointing losses that challenged the faith of Saints fans, the Black and Gold faithful are seeing a few things.
One, the offense is starting to become more productive. The team is coughing up the ball less and Brees has been getting his passes into the end zone...in the hands of Saints receivers specifically. And Hartley can't miss field goals he's not attempting if the offense is coming away with touchdowns.
Secondly, the NFC Championship Game hero and Super Bowl point contributor has become consistent...in a good way. Hartley field goal attempts no longer cause Saints fans to hold their breath and cross their fingers.
Thirdly, the offensive line has offered Brees more protection. Is this is a result of protecting the quarterback against less pressure or a sign of improvement by the o-line? Brees was sacked only once on Sunday.
Fourthly, we've seen a different side of the Gregg Williams defense. While not the ball-hawks of 2009, the 2010 Saints defense has done a better job stifling opposing offenses. Also the Saints defense hasn't been burned as much by big running plays.
The Saints defense has so far this season outperformed the Saints offense, keeping the Saints in the game long enough for the offense to find their groove.
Finally, the Saints have had more luck on the ground despite struggling with injuries to their featured backs. The young, hard running Chris Ivory has curbed his former fumblitis and is a lock to remain on the roster and given opportunities to contribute after running backs Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas return. Fellow b-sstringers Jones and Ladell Betts have also helped take some of the load off of Ivory, thought their tenure with the team is less certain.
The Carolina game proved that the Saints deserve to once again be considered one of the top teams in the conference despite trailing behind Atlanta and remain in the hunt for a playoff spot, their division and a coveted first-round bye.