Few play-callers creatively exploit defenses as well as Saints head coach Sean Payton. The offense is good for 30 points per game with the way he spreads the ball around. Drew Brees has a great rapport with his receivers, especially the reliable Marques Colston, and the running game has not lost much bounce regardless of who is toting the ball, getting healthy again before their stretch run with Pierre Thomas returning to the lineup alongside a recovered Reggie Bush and an inspired Chris Ivory. But what continues to separate the Saints, much like it did a year ago on its Super Bowl journey, is the opportunistic play of its defense.
A requirement for defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is a very smart center fielder who can counteract quarterbacks with the right coverage and make plays on the ball. Early in the season, when Malcolm Jenkins replaced the injured Darren Sharper at free safety, the Saints had opportunities to make plays on the back end and were not making them, as Jenkins, a former cornerback, was still feeling his way through the position change. With Sharper back and Jenkins moving between the high safety and the slot, the Saints' defense has thrived, with 12 takeaways during the team's six-game winning streak. It preyed on Rams rookie QB Sam Bradford, who was continually hit and hurried, in Sunday's 31-13 victory.
Down 14-6 heading into halftime with the possession of the ball deep in Saints territory following a Courtney Roby fumble on a kickoff return, the Rams were in position to tie the game. DE Will Smith ripped inside rookie OLT Rodger Saffold with ease and barreled down on Bradford. The young QB lobbed a floater off his back foot that Jenkins stepped in front of and returned for a 96-yard pick-six — his first interception of the season. The Saints never looked back, and were in complete command of the game early in the fourth quarter when he stepped in front of another errant Bradford pass at the goal line.
The Saints' defense produced a steady steam of havoc throughout the day, as Roman Harper stripped Steven Jackson in the open field on what otherwise would have been a long gain and Jonathan Vilma jarred the ball out of Bradford's hand on an overloaded, blind-side blitz.
In the NFC, no team has gotten stronger down the stretch than the Saints, who could still challenge the Falcons for NFC South supremacy with a head-to-head matchup in Atlanta in Week 16.
• The Patriots did not just beat the Bears. They made a statement, rolling through the Chicago snow like they plowed through the Jets a week earlier after solid victories over Pittsburgh and Indianapolis. Tom Brady put on a clinic for how to beat a two-deep look, dinking and dunking down the field effortlessly in the snow against a defense that has been one of the best in the league. The Patriots are a very well-coached team that does not beat itself and is playing years beyond its age.
Replacing Randy Moss with Deion Branch has made a big difference on the outlook and attitude of the offense, as it no longer has a dragging, seemingly always dissatisfied component that drained the life out of the other 10 players on the unit. Since Moss has moved on, the rookie tight ends have become more integrated into the offense. When most teams tend to be battered, bruised and beaten in spirit, the Patriots have been hitting on all cylinders. They have proven to be the best team in football heading into January.
• An overlooked component of Dick LeBeau's defense is how critical the five-technique position is. What's impressive about the way the Steelers' defense has been playing is how well they have been able to adapt to losing Aaron Smith — something they struggled to do in past years, especially 2009. Fill-in Ziggy Hood is big and strong, but he is ultra-stiff and cannot sink his hips or easily bend his knees and too often has been waylaid and knocked off the ball. He has not been nearly as efficient as Smith. Nonetheless, with one of the strongest linebacking groups in the league, if not the very best, LeBeau has been able to get around Hood's limitations with his creative array of pressure.
• How does a defense return two interceptions for TDs in a game? It happens when a quarterback does not understand how to manipulate defensive backs with his eyes and is not on the same page with his receivers, as has been the case with Bengals QB Carson Palmer most of the season. Palmer birddogged Terrell Owens the entire time before Troy Polamalu dashed in front of the errant throw and Polamalu scored a crucial game-tying touchdown late in the first half with Cincy nursing a 7-0 lead. Later, Palmer never looked off LaMarr Woodley when he tried to hit Chad Ochocinco on a quick strike, resulting in an easy score for Woodley that broke open a tight game. Trying to fit the ball into Owens between three defenders at the goal line with two minutes to play resulted in another Polamalu pick. A combination of undisiciplined route running and lazy quarterbacking eyes have resulted in too many negative plays for the Bengals' offense this season.
• On the flip side, there may not have been a better catch in Week 14 than the one-handed snag Steelers WR Antwaan Randle-El made with CB Jonathan Wade well-positioned in coverage yet unable to defend the acrobatic leap. Ben Roethlisberger had Bengals DT Geno Atkins in his face when he delivered the ball and was able to throw the ball to a spot and rely on his receiver to make a big play. That set up the Steelers for the go-ahead score before the half and gave them the momentum into the locker room.
• The interim hiring trend quickly revamped the culture in Dallas and Minnesota, where neither Wade Phillips nor Brad Childress inspired confidence in their teams, and Jason Garrett and Leslie Frazier have been able to bring refreshing, much-needed command. The leadership dynamic in Denver was not the same. Despite not having an abundance of talent, the offense worked well. Josh McDaniels was respected for his football knowledge by players, and as its play-caller, was capable of putting points on the board in explosive fashion. With its emotional leader gone, the unit clearly regressed and was not nearly as crisp as it was under his direction. Where McDaniels was most challenged by his age was gaining the respect of his more experienced staff members, who did not always take orders well from a brash, borderline overly confident coach. McDaniels' questionable personnel moves are well documented and proved costly, but where the train fell off the tracks is when he could not see eye to eye with defensive coordinator Mike Nolan last season. Nolan defected to Miami and has done a very solid job working with greater autonomy under Tony Sparano. The same defensive issues that caught up to Mike Shanahan ultimately helped seal McDaniels' fate, and are a primary reason why the Broncos appear headed to hire a defensive-minded head coach this time around.
• What was most impressive in Tim Hightower's career-best rushing day against Denver was not any of his 148 yards, but rather the crushing block he made on S David Bruton in backside pass protection. He stopped Bruton cold in his tracks, drove him off the ground and put him flat on his back.
• When Redskins GM Bruce Allen was in Oakland as the chief capologist, the Raiders' continually fielded one of the oldest teams in the league, as Al Davis often stockpiled aging veterans who still had some gas left in the tank and were seeking to conclude their careers in the Bay Area. Jerry Rice, Rod Woodson, Warren Sapp — so many veterans have come to Oakland to cap off Hall of Fame careers. In Washington, it still has too much of the same feel as when Bruce Smith and Deion Sanders were overpaid and underproduced on the back end of their careers. It's time for the Redskins to start a youth movement, focus on the draft and develop fresh talent. If Mike Shanahan does not find a new quarterback of the future in the next draft, it will be too late. Shanahan is already beginning to cut the fat from the roster, suspending Albert Haynesworth, and looking toward the future. It says here Donovan McNabb will not be far behind Haynesworth out the door.
• The Lions' victory over Green Bay stopped an ugly trend of 20 consecutive defeats in the NFC North and would not have been possible if not for the aggressive, overly tenacious and physical temperament of their defense, which has taken on the same identity as the one Jim Schwartz previously coached in Tennessee. Last week, Ndamukong Suh nearly knocked Jay Cutler out of the game with a violent shove into the ground. This week, the Lions managed to knock Aaron Rodgers out of the game with a concussion thanks to a a hard hit from LB Landon Johnson. The Lions have enough playmakers at key positions on offense to compete, only needing to better protect their quarterback. With another season to upgrade their offensive line, Schwartz will be on track to resurrect an organization that has been one of the biggest failures in football the past decade.
• The decision to release Mike Sherman as Packers head coach was not seen as a great surprise at the time given that GM Ted Thompson was looking to put his own imprint on the organization. What is memorable to evaluators is that Thompson was not content with mediocrity despite key injuries at the time to Javon Walker, Bubba Franks and Ahman Green. If Mike McCarthy happens to finish 8-8 without the services of his star quarterback, executives are already surmising that changes could come in Green Bay, given Thompson's standards. Having overcome as many injuries as any other team, however, the Packers should feel very good about where the team currently stands, and that the opportunity to win a division title still exists.
• Instincts are often gained through trial and error and many years of experience, but sometimes no matter how many times coaches deliver a hard message, it just does not sink in and progress cannot be made. It's too early to write off Chad Henne or Mark Sanchez, but after Henne never saw front-side pressure that he should have felt from an attacking Calvin Pace who came free nearly untouched, it gave a sense of why Bill Parcells expressed frustration with the passer before leaving the organization. Front-side pressure is not always accounted for in protection and is often put on the quarterback to see and react to it. Henne was completely oblivious to it. Sanchez appears to have lost some confidence and will need a more simple game plan from offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer moving forward if the overrated Jets want to have a chance in January. If they cannot win with their strong defense and ground game, they are in trouble.