29 December 2011

Drew Brees: The Fallacy of Intangibles

"When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign: that the dunces are all in confederacy against him." 

- Jonathan Swift

Though this famed quote straddles cliche at this point, it seems partly relevant to Drew Brees and especially relevant to the city of New Orleans thanks to John Kennedy Toole

After spending several days (years, really) consuming opinions, analyses, and profiles of Drew Brees, I was struck by the pervasive, often underlying, notion that Drew Brees has "overachieved" in his professional career and, by extension, is not regarded with the same canonical reverence bestowed upon some of his peers.

The word most frequently trotted out in reference to Brees is "intangibles." Those measuring Brees by his intangibles generally intimate that those qualities are to credit for his successes, not his physical skills or athletic pedigree. It's oversimplified and flawed. 

So let me point out the wholly erroneous notion and general fallacy of this "intangible" business. What does it even mean? "It's his intangibles, Boomer." And why does it seem to be universally agreed upon with head-nodding approval as an explanation for Brees' success?  

Even in an article as poignant and excellent as this one, the author refers to Brees' intangible qualities as a qualifying indicator of his greatness that remains some unsolvable mystery. And really, this is the conventional wisdom regarding Brees.

But Coach Payton has repeatedly called Brees the best athlete on his team, even to the hyper-specificity of referring to Brees as an "elite foot athlete." But too often, it's not about Brees' athleticism in concert with his other attributes. It's instead always narrow, vague, or mislabeled.

And why are leadership, work ethic, competitveness, composure, high character, and exceptional IQ considered "mystery" traits? Because traditional NFL scouts, talent evaluators, and media "experts" have been too simple-minded to assign them importance when judging the QB position? Because they have difficulty defining those traits in simple, measurable terms?

But because Brees' talents are so great, so varied, and unquestionably unique, he gets overlooked, sold short, and condescendingly labeled as an "overachiever?" As if it were unthinkable that he was capable of this.

Do military leaders who choose generals to lead their armies see these same qualities as mysterious, undefinable, and veiled? Of course not. Why? Because they place importance on them. You generally won't find something you don't look for.

They are--instead--tangible qualities, readily accessible and definable. And they're of much greater importance than being able to throw a football 80 yards from your knees. Right Kyle Boller? Right Jamarcus Russell?

But the conventional belief systems of the established guard continue to stubbornly cling to oversimplified, dated "truths" while players like Brees have shifted the landscape and mocked the multitude of "geniuses" who know better. Isn't that right, Coach Saban? Still think Philip Rivers has a higher ceiling, AJ Smith?

If the national perception of Brees was rooted in the traditionalism of the 6'5, white, strong-armed QB with limited mobility that was hitherto "Andrew Lucked" for his entire life, Brees would likely be on his way to winning his 4th MVP.

Instead, he'll probably get bypassed again this year when he's again deserving. And what's worse is the idle chatter that the passing record--should Brees in fact hold it after season's end--be potentially asterisked in some way.

Brian Burke of Advanced NFL Stats eloquently and succinctly debunked that ridiculous position when he said "the notion that the 1984 record was somehow pure or true, and the 2011 record is tainted due to rule changes is myopic in the extreme." Read that again. Myopic in the extreme.

But regardless, the skepticism remains. It's a continuation of the same absurd logic that has perpetuated the belief that Brees just shouldn't be as good as he in fact is. I mean, there's no way he could set the record without rules being altered in his favor. The pundits can't fathom it, so surely there must be an explanation to validate the gaping flaws in their judgments.

I'm sorry, but I can't imagine that these same nonsensical platitudes would be lobbed the way of Peyton Manning or Tom Brady if they were in Brees' shoes today. And why? Because they're taller? As silly as that sounds, it seems to be the prevailing, though perhaps subconscious, logic.

Manning and Brady have won four of the past five MVP awards, yet neither one of them maintains the same resume that Brees has compiled in the past 6 seasons.

Over that span, Brees leads the league in yards, TDs, and completion %; became the only QB in NFL history to twice throw for 5000+ yards in a season; set a league record for completion % in a season; won a Super Bowl; and won a Super Bowl MVP. No other QB in the league can boast that impeccable resume.

Yet continually, Brees is relegated to second fiddle. To wit, Drew Brees has yet to win the league MVP even though he's been the league's best player over the past 6 seasons. How does that happen without an underlying, flawed belief among a portion of the cognoscenti that Brees is just not as good as the other good players?

Because the "experts" can't fully comprehend the breadth and scope of Brees' greatness, they have--in a way--subordinated him.

And if it happens again this year, and Brees is bypassed for the MVP by Aaron Rodgers, then let's just hope for a repeat of the 2009 MVP/Super Bowl MVP dynamic.

Maybe then, the second-guessers and skeptics will give Drew Brees his proper due for being one of the best to ever play.

27 December 2011

Week 16 Rear View: Falcons at Saints

To reiterate, every week during the season I'll be posting a summary of the Saints' game, complete with key stats and a "Good, Bad, Ugly" performance review. If you have ideas or feedback, please feel free to submit those to me via blog comment, Twitter, Facebook, email, text, message in a bottle or whatever floats your proverbial boat. 

Also, at four-week intervals, we'll see how the Saints rank league-wide in some important statistical categories. 

Final Score: Saints 45, Falcons 16
Record: 12-3
Complete Box Score

Yards Gained: 463
Yards Allowed: 469
Yards/play: 7.3
Yards/play allowed: 6.3

Turnover Differential: -1   [+1, -2], (-4)
First Down Differential: +3   [+26, -23], (+76)
Sack Differential: -1   [+0, -1], (+3)
Time of Possession Differential: -6:19   (+48:48)

3rd Down Conversion: 77%, 10/13  (56%, 112/199)
Opponent's 3rd Down Conversion: 47%, 8/17   (34%, 67/197)

2011 Aggregate Point Differential: +180
Average PPG
: 33.5
Opponent's Average PPG: 21.5

* as always, numbers in brackets [x] represent game totals, while numbers in parentheses (y) represent season totals

The Good

* Another historic night in the Superdome further validated the Saints' franchise ascension among the elite in the modern era of NFL football. 

While the Saints were winning their 3rd NFC South title in Payton's six seasons as coach, Drew Brees was not only breaking the record for most passing yards in a season, but he was also becoming the first QB in NFL history to post two 5000+ yard seasons. 

Combined with dismantling the hapless Falcons, the night couldn't have been much better for Saints' fans.

When you consider the key components of the Saints--their coach and their QB--you continually come to the conclusion that each individual is arguably the best in the world at his specific vocation, and that the Saints are fortunate for the perfect melding of events that has allowed greatness to continually transpire in New Orleans.

What's further promising is that there's more to come. Dream on. 

* The defense once again handled its business, forcing the Falcons to trade FGs for TDs. 

Additionally, Malcolm Jenkins put himself in an opportune spot to score a TD that hearkened memories of glorious days past.  

The defense has held strong over the past 7 weeks, limiting opponents to 19 points per game. Against teams with highly-capable offenses (Giants, Lions, Falcons twice) the defense has been all the more impressive. 

In particular, Junior Galette stood out last night and appears to be the Saints' best pash-rusher at this point in the season. If he can continue to emerge, the Saints' pass-rushing woes might just be a thing of the past right in time for the playoffs.

* After week 12, I pondered whether the Saints had the best rushing attack in the league. Through week 16, the Saints certainly look they're still in the conversation, ranking 5th in yards per carry and 9th in yards per game. 

Against the Falcons, the Saints quietly churned out 164 yards on the ground (7.1 per) by distributing the ball among their RBs. 

If you delve into the advanced metrics at Football Outsiders or Advanced NFL Stats, you'll also find that the Saints' ground game is ranked among the top-5 over a few different categories. 

While Sean Payton is renowned for his progressive passing attack (and rightfully so), the implementation of the "three-headed" rushing attack is another offensive design he has pioneered to near perfection starting in 2009. 

It's a testament to both Payton's adaptability and innovation.

The Bad
* What is this chorus of woe echoing from Atlanta? Are grown men who get paid millions of dollars per year to play defense actually whining about their inability to accomplish the very task they're paid so handsomely to do?

What the hell kind of bizarro world are we living in?

* And Pete Prisco, who nobody is ever going to confuse for David Halberstam, continued his embarrassing carnival-barking campaign by calling the Saints "classless" for trying to attain the passing record last night. Mind you, this was soon after Prisco called for the Falcons to "take out" Brees and then reinforced that absurd notion saying that hurting Brees would be "worth" the penalty and the fine.

So let me get this straight, Peter. It's classless for the Saints to set a record, yet it's reasonable for you to advocate for an injury to a player. Are you ****ing stupid? Wait, I think we know the answer already. 

Maybe you should study up on the meaning of the word "hypocrisy" before you continue on your pathetic little quest to remain relevant in a world that's not fooled by your ignorant, serial, self-promotional charade. 

The Ugly
* Are you listening, Jeff Duncan? Because I'm talking to you too. You spinelessly come to your colleague's rescue instead of rightfully denouncing him? 

And even if you didn't have the fortitude to chastise Prisco for his idiocy last night, you certainly shouldn't have pendantically head-patted Saints' fans who were righfully enraged by Prisco's statements.

Why should Saints' fans back off of Prisco? And why should you deign to instruct others from being indignant? 

Again, what the hell kind of bizarro world are we living in? 

Worth Repeating
* "You go with your gut. I thought it was the right decision last night. This morning, I thought it was clearly the right decision." - Sean Payton   

*photos courtesy of Yahoo! Sports    

22 December 2011

The Evolution of a Rivalry

The first time I can really remember feeling palpable disdain for the Atlanta Falcons was in late 1991.

By this time in my life, I fancied myself a seasoned football acolyte and a full-fledged Who Dat wholly engaged in the Saints' first winning regime under Jim Mora.

While hitherto in the mid '80s I technically understood the 'assignment' of rivalry with Atlanta, I never felt fully emotionally invested in it until the Saints were bounced from the playoffs by a team that I--at that specific time--perceived as a weak, lucky-to-be-there underling.

Pat Swilling was the defensive player of the year. The Saints had enjoyed one of their finer seasons, finally supplanting the Montana-led 49ers in the geographically-liberal NFC West. And the Superdome was home to a wild card game against the Falcons that would surely set the stage for the Saints' first run at a Super Bowl.

At the time, it seemed very possible with the league's best defense and all.

But then the Falcons came into the Dome and put an end to all that hope. Killers of dreams, those Falcons. When you're 16 years old, that kind of stuff leaves a mark, as silly as it might seem.

Not only did it hurt to realize that postseason glory would again evade the tenuous grasp of the Saints' franchise, but to have it come at the hands of the Falcons? After the Saints had finally conquered the 49ers in the division? And in the Dome?

It was our turn, not Atlanta's.

From that day forward, the rivalry really meant something to me.

The Saints went on to lose ten in a row to Atlanta in the mid-to-late '90s, and the Falcons' appearance in the the Super Bowl after the '98 season further cemented the Falcons' dominance in the rivalry.

But then Eugene Robinson--he, the 1998 winner of the Bart Starr Award for "high moral character" on the eve of his team's Super Bowl appearance--moronically and comically sank any chance those Falcons had against the Elway-led Broncos when he got busted for trying to get a $40 blow job from some random hooker the night before the big game.

Not only was Robinson dumb, but he was cheap. Take that, Atlanta!


You have to understand that "hating" another team in the context of sports rivalries isn't the same kind of hate reserved for despots, rapists, Wall Street bankers, and the Jerry Sandusky's of the world. It's in the limits of language. It's more of a shorthand method for saying "f*ck you, I hope you lose, my wellbeing for the next week is almost completely dependent on the outcome of this game." It's not in wishing physical or long-lasting emotional harm upon someone.

Is it juvenile, myopic, and kind of weird? Of course it is. But then we wouldn't be Oxford-defined fanatics if this weren't the case. It does matter even though it probably shouldn't.

Would Saints' fans truly have wanted to play any other team on 9/25/06? Could it have been any more poetically righteous than to paste the Falcons on national TV post-Katrina? Why I think not.

These are the indelible brushstrokes on a masterfully-layered canvas of rivalry that continues to provide meaning. And these might have been the most beautiful strokes of all. It heightened the appreciation and perfection of the moment.

The Saints have now won 9 of the last 11 vs Atlanta in the modern era, with a shiny Lombardi trophy to boot. Atlanta with all its perceived superiorities--economically prosperous, classically Southern, geographically relevant--is feeling the full brunt of the rivalry's inferiority. Wouldn't you feel that way if the once $100-million-dollar face of your franchise went to federal prison for murdering puppies? That's gotta leave a mark.

I mean, the Falcons overreacted so badly after last year's postseason flameout as the #1 seed in the NFC that they essentially traded their entire draft for a WR. Panic much?

Would you be reassured by having an adult male with this haircut and accompanying to-catch-a-predator 'stache running your franchise? Or would you feel uneasy, insecure, and a little bit awkward? Can you see why it's so easy to ridicule the Falcons?

And now the Falcons come calling on Monday in the Superest of Domes with the Saints poised to clinch the division and Brees standing on the precipice of NFL history. Are you shitting me? The day after Christmas? On a nationally-televised Monday night game?

The only way this could be scripted any better is if the Saints win by 30 points and Matt Ryan is spotted crying on the sidelines. Now that would be proper.

I'd love to be all stoic and mature and dismissive about the importance of beating the Falcons. But I can't be, so I won't.

This is not business; it's personal.

That's just the way it is. That's why sports rivalries matter. Because they are personal. They're not rooted in cold, dispassionate transactionality. You don't have to like it or understand it. You just have to accept that's how it is.

On Monday night, it will be highly personal. And that's why we'll all be going crazy, having fun, and letting our hearts dangle on our sleeves. It couldn't be any other way.

This year, let's hope that Christmas comes a little late for Who Dats everywhere.

19 December 2011

Week 15 Rear View: Saints at Vikings

To reiterate, every week during the season I'll be posting a summary of the Saints' game, complete with key stats and a "Good, Bad, Ugly" performance review. If you have ideas or feedback, please feel free to submit those to me via blog comment, Twitter, Facebook, email, text, message in a bottle or whatever floats your proverbial boat. 

Also, at four-week intervals, we'll see how the Saints rank league-wide in some important statistical categories. 

Final Score: Saints 42, Vikings 20
Record: 11-3
Complete Box Score

Yards Gained: 573
Yards Allowed: 207
Yards/play: 7.3
Yards/play allowed: 3.8

Turnover Differential: -1   [+1, -2], (-3)
First Down Differential: +24   [+36, -12], (+73)
Sack Differential: +4   [+4, -0], (+4)
Time of Possession Differential: +18:49   (+55:07)

3rd Down Conversion: 73%, 8/11  (55%, 102/186)
Opponent's 3rd Down Conversion: 29%, 4/14   (33%, 59/180)

2011 Aggregate Point Differential: +151
Average PPG
: 32.6
Opponent's Average PPG: 21.8

* as always, numbers in brackets [x] represent game totals, while numbers in parentheses (y) represent season totals.  

The Good
* Will the Saints' offense finally get the recognition for greatness it's justly garnered this season? 

Buried beneath the mounds of Packers' coverage and the sycophantish, fawning praise for Tim Tebow in the national media, this Saints' offense is quite probably the best offensive unit to grace an NFL field. 

And before this week, it's received nary a mention outside of the Saints' immediate sphere of media influence.  

The Saints stand just 682 yards shy of eclipsing the all-time yardage mark set by the '00 Rams (7075), and on Sunday the devastating potency and frightening diversity of the league's best offense was in its full, dominant glory. 

In case you weren't paying attention, this was taking place in Minnesota and not in Kansas City.

The Saints--after starting slowly and playing the majority of the 4th quarter with Drew Brees standing on the sidelines--racked up 573 yards, possessed the ball for nearly 39 minutes, passed for 412 yards, and churned out 161 yards on the ground. And let's just remember: this is the NFL, not the Big 12.  

For good measure, nine different players caught passes--four of them for 70 or more yards--while five different players scored a TD. Who says socialism can't work? 

* Amazingly, Drew Brees continues to get better and Sunday's game was among the best games any QB has ever played, as evidenced by his first-time-in-NFL-history stat line: 400+ yards, 80% completions, 5 TDs, 0 INTs. Another week, another record. Records keep piling up and opponents continue to flail away trying to prevent them. Brees is unquestionably playing the QB position better than anyone in the league right now, and maybe better than anyone's ever played it. 

Over the past five weeks, Brees has completed 72.5% of his passes; thrown 16 TDs and 0 INTs; and averaged 355 yards/game for a 125.1 rating. Enjoy it, folks. We are watching one of the best ever to play the position. That's increasingly more clear with each passing week.

Are you listening Mickey Loomis? Rita Leblanc? Tom Benson? You best pay that man his money. 

* The Saints' running game continues to impress with its own layers of balance and continued, reliable efficiency. It's quietly become one of the league's best rushing attacks. 

Pierre Thomas perfectly epitomizes this sense of balance and diversity and against the Vikings, his full set of skills was on display. 

He gained 44 yards rushing (5.5 per), 41 yards receiving (20.5 per), and scored a TD. 

Moreover, Thomas flashed his trademark tenacity and second effort, repeatedly breaking tackles and accruing yards after contact.

A great day for a player who represents so much of what the Saints stand for: selflessness, determination, intelligence, reliability, diversity of skill.  

Additionally, Chris Ivory again filled in admirably for Mark Ingram, gaining 74 punishing yards (4.1 per) while continuing to make his case for a full-time spot on the weekly active roster. Coach Payton has quite the conundrum on his hands when Ingram returns to health; and though I might be alone on this, I continue to believe that Payton will activate all 4 RBs for each postseason game.

* With 232 all-purpose yards on Sunday, Darren Sproles, like many of his offensive brethren, is closing in on a record of his own. Sproles is 398 yards shy of the league record for all-purpose yards in one season (2690, Derrick Mason '00). 

If Sproles can uncork a long return in one of these last two games, he'll have a great shot at the record. Interestingly enough, Michael "Beer Man" Lewis currently sits in 2nd place for most all-purpose yards in a season (2647, '02).

* Sunday's game was certainly the defense's best showing of the year, favorably responding to the challenge (threats?) posed by Gregg Williams last week

The defense held the Vikings to a meager 3.8 yards per play and just 207 yards overall. That's the 3rd fewest yards allowed during Gregg Williams' tenure in New Orleans, and the defense continues to improve late in the season.

Once again, the defense played excellent on 3rd down, limiting the Vikings to just 29% of their 14 opportunities.

More importantly, they deftly handled the adversity of being saddled with short fields early in the game, limiting the Vikings to two FGs and one TD after the offense turned the ball over twice and the special teams failed to recover a brilliant onsides kick.

Finally, the defense generated pressure and notched 4 sacks

Yesterday's game seemed to be the defense's best effort this season from a pass-rush perspective, and if the Saints have designs on beating the Packers in Green Bay, it's incumbent upon them to generate a modicum of a pass rush from their defensive line. 

Sunday's effort was a step in the right direction. 

The Bad
* The Saints started slowly and carelessly turned the ball over twice early in the game.

Giving the hapless Vikings an early opportunity to believe they might win the game was a formula for a Vikings' victory, and the Saints provided them just that. 

As LT Jermon Bushrod noted in a postgame interview, without those early stops by the defense, this game "would've been a completely different beast."

The Ugly
* Nothing much besides Jared Allen's mullet

Worth Repeating
* "This offense is just awesome." FOX analyst John Lynch, midway through the 3rd quarter.

photos courtesy of Yahoo! Sports       

15 December 2011

The Realities of Super Bowl Glory

I'm going to get ahead of myself in these next 600 words.

If you prefer to focus on the present, to focus on the pending "trap" or "letdown" game that looms this weekend in Minnesota, then go right ahead. But I don't want to think anymore about how this weekend's game has all the classic elements of a letdown. Instead, I want to speculate.

I'm going to (ahem) ponder the end-game: winning the Super Bowl. Will the Saints do it again this season?

The current state of Saints' football is one of expected excellence: from players, coaches, executives, and fans.

While in the not-too-distant past, the prospect of a 10-win season and a playoff berth would be cause for mass celebration (like most everything else in New Orleans), this year's securing of a postseason invitation was met mostly by muted cheers and an air of inevitability.

Why? Because Saints' football has finally risen to the level that dictates that winning the big prize is all that counts. At least it's started to feel that way among an increasingly larger swath of the fan base. Four playoff trips in six seasons? Yawn. Two NFC Championship Games in five seasons? Standard.

But another Super Bowl win? Well, the Saints need another one if for nothing more than to validate the ever-prominent, deep-rooted belief that the Saints 2.0 are the NFL's best franchise, that they are in the dynastic throes of NFL history, and that in this golden age of football in south Louisiana, that greatness and immortality will be judged by championships only. Moral victories are a bit passe, no?

So while sentiment and expectation have wildly shifted the notions of success, consistent on-field production and winning results have been the fundaments for such aggrandized, lofty goals. Having an all-time great at QB in the midst of one of the greatest six-year stretches a QB has ever produced also forcefully contributes to the notion. Why think otherwise?

And what's most settling is that it's firmly rooted in reality. It's no longer a delusion. The Saints are in fact positioned to win another Super Bowl this year, whether they blow this game against Minnesota or not.

Of course, if you ask the all-knowing pundits and media experts, it's fait accompli that the Packers will waltz uncontested to a second consecutive Lombardi trophy. And if you listen not-so-closely, you'll hear the rattlings of "historic greatness" and "best of all time" bandied about in almost every Packers' conversation.

And guess what? At this point, maybe deservedly so. But it's a bit premature. And dismissive. Do you think that this Saints team, given an opportunity against Green Bay in the postseason, is just going to roll over and die? That they're just going to concede to some presupposed fate? That they're incapable of winning?

Nonsense. This seems like a team motivated by unfinished business.

In case you haven't noticed, this is not a group of individuals easily deterred. Instead, it's a team with the striking qualities and champion's demeanor of its quarterback: determined, prepared, confident, composed, and highly-skilled.

In the NFL, the meek don't inherit shit.

When I look at the current embodiment of the Saints, I see a better, more complete group than the '09 team. I see a team with a proven belief system--now innate and complete--that espouses a yeoman's work ethic and a champion's heart. I see a team with an indefatigable, beaming focus. I see a team fully capable of winning the Super Bowl, and just as good as any other team in the NFL. I see the lore of a champion's tale being told.

Call me crazy, call me blinded by loyalties, call me irrational, call me incapable of objectivity. Those things are all true. But those qualities of mine don't undermine the plausibility of the premise.

There are roughly two months left in the NFL season. Will the Saints ascend Lombardi's mountain and reach its summit again? Here's an affirmative nod for once again looking down from that champion's peak.

12 December 2011

Week 14 Rear View: Saints at Titans

To reiterate, every week during the season I'll be posting a summary of the Saints' game, complete with key stats and a "Good, Bad, Ugly" performance review. If you have ideas or feedback, please feel free to submit those to me via blog comment, Twitter, Facebook, email, text, message in a bottle or whatever floats your proverbial boat. 

Also, at four-week intervals, we'll see how the Saints rank league-wide in some important statistical categories. 

Final Score: Saints 22, Titans 17
Record: 10-3
Complete Box Score

Yards Gained: 437
Yards Allowed: 373
Yards/play: 5.8
Yards/play allowed: 6.8

Turnover Differential: 0   [+0, -0], (-2)
First Down Differential: +7   [+24, -17], (+49)
Sack Differential: 0   [+2, -2], (0)
Time of Possession Differential: +15:27   (+36:18)

3rd Down Conversion: 58%, 11/19  (54%, 94/175)
Opponent's 3rd Down Conversion: 10%, 1/10   (33%, 55/166)

2011 Aggregate Point Differential: +129
Average PPG
: 31.9
Opponent's Average PPG: 22.0

* as always, numbers in brackets [x] represent game totals, while numbers in parentheses (y) represent season totals.

The Good
* Is there a player in the NFL more criminally-underrated than Marques Colston? During the offseason, I examined whether Colston should be considered among the elite at his position, even though he's virtually never mentioned as such. On Sunday, Colston again proved that when called upon, he's as good as it gets.

After a first half of perhaps the most conservatively-called plays of the Payton era, Colston made an indelible imprint on a game in need of a stamp. With Jimmy Graham at less than full capacity with back spasms, Colston stepped to the fore and was the key player in the 22-17 win. 

Colston caught all 7 passes thrown his way, gaining 105 crucial yards--78 of which came in the second half. 

More importantly, both of Colston's TDs came in the decisive 4th quarter, one when he found himself wide-open for an impressive leaping grab that he converted into a TD; then soon after, he scored the game-winning TD on a patented 1st down strike from Brees. 

As pointed out by a few people, Payton slyly inserted seldom-used RT Pat McQuistan into the game on first down for what appeared to be a heavy run formation. On cue, Payton called a play-action pass and Colston had just enough space down the seam for Brees to drop in a perfect TD pass. 

A quintessential Payton moment.   

* In the last five games the defense has surrendered just one first-half TD, allowing the Saints the luxury of consistently playing with the lead during its five-game winning streak. And while it hasn't been all good for the Saints' defense this season--or even in this game--the defense has made enough strides to make the Saints look increasingly formidable. 

Again on Sunday the defense played outstanding on 3rd down, limiting the Titans to just one conversion in ten attempts. 

On a day when the offense struggled with consistency in finishing off drives, the defense continually served up chances for the offense to get into rhythm. 

Further, the deservedly much-maligned rush defense was up to the task of slowing down Chris Johnson for the entirety of the day. Operating out of a 3-4 alignment that might just be a revelation, the Saints' LBs protected the periphery of the field and muted Johnson's big ability off the edge. As a result, the Titans continually faced 2nd and 3rd-and-longs that they were largely incapable of converting. 

Finally, let's give Malcolm Jenkins a mention of praise for his spectacular open-field tackle of Chris Johnson on 2nd and 10 to prevent a first down and, probably, a touchdown. The stop proved crucial as two plays later, the Saints stuffed the Titans on 4th and 1 to blunt a go-ahead scoring opportunity for Tennessee late in the game. 

Jenkins hasn't quite taken the leap that I expected this season, and that might be partly because the defensive scheme (which requires him to play 20 yards off the ball) has neutered his impact. Regardless, it was promising to see Jenkins make a confident, crucial play against the opponent's best player in a big spot. I feel certain there's more of that to come.  

* Chris Ivory deserves credit for stepping into the void created by Mark Ingram's absence and maintaining the rushing attack's efficiency. It was an unassuming, though impactful, performance. 

Again the Saints cracked 100+ yards on the ground, and again they hit the magic benchmark of 25-ish rush attempts. Ivory contributed with 53 yards on 13 carries (4.1 per) and flashed his impressive, vicious blend of power, explosion, and speed.

While I am admittedly a big fan of Mark Ingram, in Ivory I see a young Corey Dillon capable of being a special talent when he's healthy.  

The Saints are in great shape with Ingram and Ivory sharing duties; for now, I expect Ingram to remain inactive for another week until he's fully healthy. 

Once that happens, we should expect to see 4 RBs on the active roster because each of them is too good to be unavailable if needed at this point in the season. 

* Lastly, one important note of good (great?): the Saints have not turned the ball over in their last four games, and they've turned it over just once in the past five.

Under Payton, the Saints are 21-0 when they don't turn the ball over. 

Enough said.  

The Bad
* How many times did Saints' defenders completely whiff on tackles? (This is a rhetorical question, though one also rooted in empiricism. I think that's like a paradox or something.)

Johnny Patrick set the unfortunate tone on the opening kickoff when he harmlessly, yet completely missed an easy tackle. And Tracy Porter recorded three head-shaking whiffs at the hands (feet?) of Chris Johnson, Lavell Hawkins, and Jake Locker. 

The worst of all? On 3rd and 10 late in the 3rd quarter, Patrick Robinson took a brutal angle and missed what seemed like an easy open field tackle on Damian Williams, who turned it into a 54-yard gain. On the next play, Jake Locker scored to give the Titans the lead.

Recurring missed tackles and blown coverages (notably and most recently against the Falcons, Giants, and Lions) are not the hallmarks of a good defense. Obviously. 

These same shortcomings coalesced into one ugly defensive performance last year against Seattle in the playoffs. You remember that, don't you? Well the problems linger.  

Without a remedy for these fundamental ailments, the Saints face the prospect of falling victim to a similar, painful postseason fate this year. 

* Lance Moore's end zone drop on 3rd down at the end of the first half was a play that, while certainly not egregious by any means, Moore routinely makes. And it was a big moment in the game. In a game on the road where points were not easy to come by, it's incumbent on Moore to make that catch.     

Though I'm not here to crucify the sure-handed Moore for failing to make a difficult catch, I have come to expect a player of his caliber to deliver in key moments. Those four points that were left on the field? Those certainly would have been helpful late in the game. 

* So let's recap here. The Saints take a 12-point with 7 minutes remaining and promptly respond by allowing the Titans to score a TD in just three plays. How does that happen? 

And how do the Saints get into such a poor defensive alignment that Will Herring is covering WR Nate Washington?

It's one thing when a linebacker has to cover a RB or a TE, but the opposing team's chief deep threat? With a double-digit lead to protect in the 4th quarter? Unacceptable.   

And then again on the Titans' last-second charge to win the game, only this time with Jo-Lonn Dunbar covering him? Ridiculous. 

It's another rudimentary lapse that the Saints' defense, and its coaches, should simply be beyond committing this late in the season.

The Ugly
* The officiating was unconscionable on Sunday, with the referees throwing a bizarre amount of flags (19), many of which seemed to be on non-violations.

What's worse is that early on, they clearly missed a pass interference penalty on Malcolm Jenkins. To compensate, they called a phantom, make-up holding penalty on Jo-Lonn Dunbar that negated a Darren Sproles' touchdown on a punt return. The problem? Dunbar wasn't even on the field. 

Upon review, Joe Buck and Troy Aikman had difficulty pinpointing the culprit, finally settling on Martez Wilson because, well, he was blocking someone. 

Then, the refs completely missed Marques Colston being mugged by Cortland Finnegan in the end zone at the end of the first half. Finnegan had a firm grasp of Colston's arm, yet the refs failed to flag it. 

In a game where there seemed to be a flag on every other play, the refs missed a few easy calls. What gives? Just a perfect storm of ineptitude.  

I'm not going to bemoan the referees' incompetence to the point that I'd say it significantly affected the outcome of the game, but the frequency, inconsistency, and pettiness of the punitive philosophy espoused by Mike Carey and crew marred the game as a whole. 

Worth Repeating
"When he took off as if he were running, I just took off with him. I was supposed to be in coverage, but hey, I made a play." Jo-Lonn Dunbar 

* photos courtesy of Yahoo! Sports