30 November 2012

Week 13, Saints at Falcons: The Gallows Pole

First, the stats.

Score: Falcons 23, Saints 13
Record: 5-7
Complete Box Score
Stat Chart:




THE GALLOWS POLE

In retrospect, it couldn't have ended any other way.

After a nightmarish calendar year for Saints' football, it was only fitting that the Saints took a killshot in the Georgia Dome against the fraudulent Falcons, on a night where Drew Brees, for the second straight week, submarined the team with an unrecognizable performance, and thus bookended this horror show that started 11 months ago with the playoff loss in San Francisco. Two rivals, two seasons, two bitter losses.

This was a perfectly deflating way to bring the strife and the frustration and the injustice and the shortcomings of 2012 all full circle.

A disaster in whole.

It started back in January with the Saints as the hottest team in the league--winners of nine straight--rolling into San Francisco against one of their longtime rivals, a team that haunted my adolescence with their mostly effortless domination of the Saints. This was a time to make it right, but that never happened. When the Saints shit the bed, when they lost that game in heartbreakingly cruel fashion, I never imagined there was a lower point for the franchise this year.

But it's been a continual erosion since, from the heights of championship aspiration, tantalizingly out of reach early in 2012, to a lifeless swing from the gallows pole late in the year, as the team's fortunes have reversed in grotesque fashion.

In Atlanta last night, the Falcons all but destroyed the Saints' playoffs hopes for 2012 and sealed what was likely the Saints' inescapable fate this season.

For it to be at the hands of a different team seems almost averse to script. Where January in San Francisco was vicious and portending, yesterday in Atlanta was ephemerally stunning but mostly just sad.

In between those two games came BountyGate, a sinister episode of devilish proportion, one that dragged the team and its fanbase through a series of damning events that are still yet to be decided.

It is BountyGate that compounds the sting of these losses, and serves as a continuing reminder of what could have been. What should have been. The scars of BountyGate will remain in perpetuity, but the freshness of the wounds manifests a sting that cruelly reminds us that this was once a championship-worthy contender, suddenly and savagely chopped down at the knees in a hollow, transparent, bullshit Goodellian show of force.

On a damn near weekly basis, there's an episodic feeling of being wholly wronged by the NFL, for them having taken from us what we earned from years of love and loyalty and undying hope: a championship contender, year in and year out.

When the Saints finally transcended failure and futility, the NFL reached out and snatched it from us in a diabolical blame-shifting maneuver. And it is both enraging and terribly sad.

Roger Goodell, that bilious, vile shell of a human being, committed a devilish act of unforgivable magnitude against the Saints and their fans and for that, we should never forget. Fuck him.

DREW BREES

In what is likely to be an omnipresent series of articles wondering "What's wrong with Drew Brees?", here's one person's opinion. Brees is a man stretched much too thin, who finally froze and cracked under the thunderous pressure of 2012.

Since 2006 Brees has gone from a boyish gym rat to a husband and father of three; the NFL's highest paid player; the face and voice of the NFL's Players' Association; BountyGate's most outspoken critic; a businessman; a ubiquitous corporate sponsor; a genuine philanthropist; and the face of the Saints franchise and the New Orleans community.

And finally, it was too much for him to handle. Last night Brees shattered into a million dulled shards in front of our eyes, in a performance as shocking as it was bad.

courtesy of USA Today
A spectacular unraveling.

At this point in his career, with his skills and achievements and high standards, Brees aimlessly staggered into uncharted territory last night.

After two weeks of debilitating decisions on the field, when the Saints' hopes hung by a baring thread, this bizarro version of Brees was devastating in all the wrong ways.

It was his teammates who held up their ends of the bargain, and Brees who shuttered victory.

It would be silly to think that Brees is immune to failure, that he and he alone can elevate the Saints from the depths of their shortcomings, but when your contract consumes nine digits, when the team, by and large, puts its eggs all in one basket, it is that person's responsibility to deliver on that trust and expectation.

When Brees so centrally impacts outcomes, he is fair game for praise and criticism alike. He doesn't get "Breesus" unconditionally. It comes with the territory. It's not so much that Brees played a couple of bad games. It's how and when he did it. And because it's unlike him to do so, and so foreign for us to experience, the magnitude of that failure is greatly amplified, especially when it's connected to the events of 2012 in composite. It's a fitting footnote to the season.

This isn't to be ungrateful for everything Brees has done for the Saints' organization; that should go without saying. It's only to say that Brees, like every other player on the Saints' roster, is subject to a rational criticism when he comes up short.

I'm sure Brees will rebound and finish the season on a strong note. That is his wont. My hope is that he'll be reunited with Sean Payton, a coach that can both ground and guide Brees most effectively, and relieve from him the pressure of being all things to all people. It's as unrealistic as it is unsustainable.

Which finally leads us to ...


SEAN PAYTON

If there was ever a one-week stretch where the effects of Sean Payton's absence were so clearly illustrated, this was it. To examine in detail the varied situations where Payton would have, likely, made all the difference would be a pointless meandering.

His importance is beyond dispute, and it was absurd and delusional for me to think the Saints would be contenders without him.

Payton's return to New Orleans, while uncertain at this point, is essential if the Saints harbor legitimate championship aspirations in the coming years. With him, a return to normalcy is likely. Without him, the prospects are much less clear.

It is Payton who has unearthed and maximized the talents of countless players: Brees, Colston, Moore, Graham, PT, Ivory, and a host of other players. These players are representative of Payton's core strengths, and it feels like I've taken for granted what Payton has built in total.

It is much more than being the NFL's best playcaller and offensive mind. That is but a small, though important, piece.

It's equally about his organizational infrastructure, his eye for talent, his ability to relate and motivate, his willingness to risk and think unconventionally, and his unrivaled competitive nature. Many of these elements have gone missing this season, and it's no surprise their absence has resulted in more losses than wins through 13 weeks.

If 2012 stands to be but an unfortunate detour on an otherwise rewarding journey, Payton's return in 2013 is essential.

Let us hope.

26 November 2012

Week 12, Saints vs 49ers: Domino Theory

First, the stats:

Score: 49ers 31, Saints 21
Record: 5-6
Complete Box Score
Stat Chart:




DOMINO THEORY

A traumatic flashback.

That's mostly what yesterday's game elicited.

The symmetry between Sunday's loss to the 49ers and January's painful divisional round playoff loss was agonizingly similar, and the 49er-associated miseries of this year, and of many years gone past, only deepened.

Like Pierre Thomas' fumble on the two-yard line in last season's playoffs, Brees' first-half interception set in motion a chain of events the Saints proved incapable of recovering from.

Last year it was a fumble that culminated in the loss of a key offensive cog, an opening drive that produced no points after a methodical march, a long TD surrendered to Vernon Davis, a Brees interception, another 49ers TD, a Roby fumble on the ensuing kickoff, a subsequent 49ers' FG, and the resulting 17-0 hole the Saints couldn't emerge from. Remember all of that? Ouch.

That's why yesterday's loss hurt so much, and probably in disproportionate measures: because it tore open a wound that's still not fully healed.

On Sunday, it was Brees throwing one of the most dispiriting, ill-timed interceptions I can recall. After handling the 49ers for much of the first half, and with a chance to take a double-digit lead into halftime of a game the Saints' home crowd was increasingly impacting, Brees giftwrapped a stunning equalizer and stabilized a woozy team previously backing into the ropes.

In the span of the next three minutes, the 49ers scored twice more, once on the second half's opening drive, and yet again on a Brees' pick-six. 21 points allowed in under four minutes. Brutal.

When you combine that with the sudden reversal of the Saints' optimal strategy of playing with a lead, to being forced to battle back against the league's best defense, it was another domino effect that proved too onerous to overcome, and one that prolonged the agony of that recent playoff loss.

An odious doppelganger, if you will.

And one that we should, finally, bury in all of its hideous revulsion.

As much as I'd like to write this game off as the Saints being outplayed by a superior team--much like I did after the Denver game a few weeks back--I can't bring myself to do it because I just don't believe that.

This was a self-inflicted loss, one heavily weighted by poor decision-making by the Saints' best player on two different occasions. While the Saints might be well capable of beating San Francisco any given week, the fact is that the Saints gave it away yesterday, just like they gave it away last January. And now they're in the tightest of spots with five games to play.

LOOKING FORWARD

The good news? Yes, there is some of that. It wasn't all bad yesterday because the entirety of the Saints' wild card competition lost: Seattle, Dallas, Tampa, Minnesota, and even Green Bay.

With five games left, the Saints are still one game back and right in the thick of things. Getting into the postseason probably means rattling off five straight wins, but 4-1 over the next five might still be good enough to do it.

There were enough positive signs yesterday to reinforce the notion that the Saints are continuing to improve, and still getting closer to playing their best football of the season. Winning five straight isn't out of the question, but it will take smart football and a little bit of luck.

It all starts with Atlanta on Thursday night. Why should we be confident for victory on a short week, on the heels of an incredibly physical game, against a 10-1 team?

1.) History: the Saints are 11-2 against the Falcons since 2006, and the Falcons have repeatedly proven adept at coming up short in big spots.

2.) Desperation: though it might not truly be the case, it feels like the Saints are playing for their season on Thursday. Time to pull out all the stops.

3.) Depth: the Saints can materially benefit from the depth of their RB rotation this week. Because the Saints' RBs share the workload so widely, the rotation should be less impacted by the short week and ready to exploit the Falcons' soft run defense.

4.) Brees: coming off of poor performances in which the Saints have lost (I identified 23 games), Brees has been pretty damn good. His passer rating is a combined 99.5 in those games; he's averaged 283 yards, 7.3 ypa, and 69% completions with a 2.7:1 TD:INT ratio.

The Saints are 15-8 in those games.

Further, in 13 career games against the Falcons as a Saint, Brees has a 99.8 passer rating; he's averaged 295 yards, 7.7 ypa, and 67.4% completions with a 2.4:1 TD:INT ratio.

All signs point towards Brees playing a good game on Thursday night, which usually means good things for the Saints. Let's not give up just yet.

Don't fret. The loss to San Francisco was by no means devastating to the Saints' playoff hopes, and the season starts anew in just three days.

It's time for the Saints' $100 million man to, in his own words, go out there and earn it.

19 November 2012

Week 11, Saints at Raiders: Can't You Hear Me Knocking?

First, the stats.

Score: Saints 38, Raiders 17
Record: 5-5
Complete Box Score
Stat Chart:









CAN'T YOU HEAR ME KNOCKING?

courtesy of Getty
Quick. 

Who’s the hottest team in the NFC? 

If you guessed the Saints, winners of five of their last six and three straight, then you’d be right. 

All of a sudden, at 5-5, with a head of billowing steam, an emerging identity, and a reinvigorated purpose, the Saints have arrived, just in the nick of time, to kick in the back door of a party nobody wants them attending. 

Knock knock, bitches. 

Just when we were ready to shovel dirt on this thing after the debacle in Denver, the Saints have reeled off three quality wins to claw back to .500 and, equally important, climb one game back of a wildcard spot with six games to play. Seattle, Minnesota, and Tampa Bay sit at 6-4, with the Saints lurking dangerously in the shadows at 5-5. 

Hold the fucking phones. 

This thing’s just getting started. 

Hear me prowlin 
Im gonna take you down 
Hear me growlin ...

Hear me howlin 
And all, all around your street now 
Hear me knockin 
And all, all around your town 


In four weeks, Joe Vitt has transformed a largely tentative, passive team—one marked by an unsightly, delicate finesse—and infused it with a purposeful, salty disdain. 

Absent is the rudderless wandering for identity and adjustments, and present is a clear-minded, physical philosophy. 

We all realize that Vitt can’t replicate Sean Payton’s quick-mindedness and innovative scheming. But Vitt has been every bit Payton's equal when it comes to leading the team, in providing them with an attitude and an intensity. Further, the stage isn’t too big for him. Right now, Vitt's presence alone counts for a lot. 

His players have responded accordingly, and the results speak for themselves. 

Maybe I’m just seeing things, but there’s a definitive attitude shift, one familiar with Payton’s presence: a swagger, a defiance, a willfulness, an overwhelming confidence. Vitt’s bestowed it on the team just like Payton did, and it is infectious. 

That mindset has manifested itself in a running game that’s produced 140+ yards in three consecutive games, in a defense that’s turning the ball over and pressuring the QB with more regularity, and in a team that’s won three straight by an average margin of 13 points. 

Mark Ingram looks, more or less, better than he ever has. It might have taken Ingram a season and a half, but the light's been turned on. Much like CJ Spiller in Buffalo who wallowed for a season-and-a-half, underwhelming and battling the “bust” label before breaking out, Ingram appears to be blooming late and proving his worth. 

With Ingram’s development and Chris Ivory’s ascendance—not to mention the presence of PT, Sproles, and Cadet—the Saints are in possession of an unfathomably deep and talented backfield, one capable of carrying the offense if need be. The runningbacks' involvement has shifted from a Sproles/PT-centered model, one reliant on draws, screens, tosses, and misdirections, and has been re-engineered as a more traditional power rushing attack featuring Ivory and Ingram. Sledge and Dredge, if you will.

This defining physical element, combined with the well-established primacy of the Saints’ passing game, has vaulted the Saints right back into contention. It's not exactly the nuclear offense of 2011, but it's come together pretty damn well at this point. 

The defense, too, hasn't been bereft of a worthy contribution of its own recently.

Where's this coming from?

I don't really know, but having Vilma back on the field seems to be making a positive difference.

If it's only for his ability to properly organize the defense and check into audibles, then that's an enormous benefit.

Just being in the right set/formation is, you know, really important.

More, Malcolm Jenkins' inconsistency seems to be receding in favor of hawkishness, and he's played two consecutive excellent games.

Whether this will continue for the remainder of the season is anybody's guess, but we might be on the cusp of witnessing an upward trajectory in Jenkins' career.

Equally important is that the front-seven has finally asserted itself. Yesterday it did so to the tune of three sacks, four hits on Carson Palmer, and four tackles for losses. This on the heels of seven sacks, eleven hits on Michael Vick, and eight tackles for losses against Philadelphia; and one sack, five hits on Matt Ryan, and four tackles for losses against Atlanta.

Signs of improvement, indeed.

After starting 0-4, it would have been a lost cause for most other teams. But Drew Brees and the Saints aren't a team that convention can quickly shoehorn into futility, and the 5-1 stretch has both provided some hope and illuminated the Saints' talent and resolve. 

They’ve rattled off winning streaks—consistently—during the past three seasons, and it’s happening again now. Will they sustain it? 

While the pundits discount the Saints’ chances and focus on how difficult their upcoming schedule is—and sure, it is—they all miss the larger point that it’s the Saints who are now presenting the difficult matchups.  

We’ve all paid close attention to the Saints' recent winning trends. Do you really think the Saints, right now, are anything less than confident that they’re winning the next game on the schedule? 

Maybe that’s what it will take to really set this fucker ablaze and put the league on notice: exacting some much-needed revenge on the grating 49ers, the NFC’s self-appointed, tough-guy contender. 

If the Saints really are going to kick down that door, if we’re really going all storybook with it this year, then a statement win against San Francisco is next on the docket.

It’s an imperative.

12 November 2012

Week 10, Falcons at Saints: No Sympathy for the Devil

First, the stats.

Final Score: Saints 31, Falcons 27
Record: 4-5
Complete Box Score
Stat Chart:




NO SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL

You want to know the difference between the present-day Falcons and Saints?

Matt Ryan has a career-best day and the Falcons lose.

When Brees has a career day? The Saints beat the NFL's model franchise by three touchdowns.

Nowhere is the dichotomy between the two organizations more indicative than at the quarterback position. We've seen it for the past several seasons, and we saw it again yesterday.

Even when Ryan's at his best, it's still not good enough.

Try as the Falcons might to convince themselves they've "made the leap" (or whatever), the reality is that they're a lot like the Hasselbeck-era Seahawks. They're good enough to get it done against inferior competition, but not quite tough enough to win when it really matters.

When you strip away everything else, Matt Ryan's on the path to being the Bobby Hebert to Drew Brees' Joe Montana. Until Falcons' fans grasp and accept this, they'll continue to bear the torturous brunt of coulda-woulda-shoulda.

We've been there already. They might be wise to heed the precedent. Deep down Falcons' fans probably realize this, as difficult as it might be to admit.

Come on, now. If there was ever a time for the Falcons to solve the Saints' riddle, to heal the lingering wounds of repeated beatings past, yesterday was the day. An 8-0 Falcons' "juggernaut" facing their hamstrung and coachless division rival; benefiting from a career day from their QB; jumping out to a 10-0 lead in the first six minutes; and yet still ... They. Just. Couldn't. Do. It.

What else can you ask for, for god's sake?

While we're at it, let's go ahead and get this out of the way: we need to stop calling this a rivalry. It requires another name. "Rivalry" implies something other than the consistent losing ways the Falcons have exhibited in this series. For the past six-and-a-half seasons, it's been utter domination by the Saints.

11-2.

Had it not been for Garrett Hartley boning a 29-yard FG in overtime in 2010, the Falcons would have one lone, sad little victory to show for their efforts in this "rivalry" since Payton arrived.

The funny thing is that the Saints haven't consistently dominated another team so completely, ever. The fact that it's the Falcons, and that one team has aligned itself among the NFL's elite, while the other desperately attempts to convince itself it will get there, makes the end results all the more resplendent.

Imitation only gets you so far.

The Falcons can say it all they want, they can feign it as convincingly as possible, but until they topple the Saints, until they emerge from the NFC, and until they lift the Lombardi, they'll be nothing more than striving, second-rate wannabes.

In the meantime? We (still) make the rules.


THE IVORY EFFECT

I don't know if Aaron Kromer will eventually be an NFL head coach or not.

But if not, it won't just be because he guided the Saints to a 2-4 record in the six games he coached.

It will be because he was too stubborn or too shortsighted to play Chris Ivory.

That Kromer would overlook this proven talent, and further forgo Ivory's tenacity--a missing element that begged for inclusion--won't go unnoticed when it comes to Kromer's future prospects as a head coach.

The fact that Kromer coordinates the running game makes it all the more glaringly faulty.

What Ivory provides is an ingredient vital to the Saints' optimal, winning offensive identity: a physical, bruising rushing presence. It was there in 2006 with Deuce, in 2009 with Mike "PUT ON THE CLEATS!" Bell, and with Ingram/Ivory in 2011. When Ingram proved incapable of providing it in the first few games, Kromer was decidedly slow on the uptake.

Failure to make proper adjustments in the NFL often results in plain, old failure, and Kromer's refusal to play Ivory might (unfortunately) be the legacy of his six-game stint.

With Ivory these past two games, the Saints' offense has unleashed the added dimension that's been integral to their success under Payton.

We can all debate the merits of balance--or ponder what that term even means in relation to the Saints--but the truth is that when the Saints run the ball effectively, when they merge rushing purpose with passing finesse, they are an offense unstoppable. At this point, what more evidence do we need?

Further, what we might be witnessing under Joe Vitt is an offensive identity modestly in transition, at least for this season. With the embarrassingly rich collection of talented RBs the Saints possess, it would be neglectful (or just dumb) to limit their involvement and the matchup quagmires they present.

If that means figuring out how to distribute the ball among four RBs, then I'm sure Brees and Carmichael are more than capable. If it means that Mark Ingram feels threatened by Ivory's presence, and that he'll continue to play as well as he has recently, then something worthwhile is underway.

If it means a handful fewer targets for JG80 Jimmy Graham, and perhaps more subsequent single coverage, then maybe that's a good thing. If it means Joe Morgan's deep speed will be a distant concern for opposing defenses, then the Saints' offense will be in better shape.

Regardless, what we can all agree on is that the Saints are a better team with Ivory's physical presence, and a more complete offense with the RBs involved in the game. For the first time this season, the Saints outrushed their opponent and for the second consecutive game, they've rushed for 140+ yards.

With Vitt settling in for the final seven games, the offense just might be onto something.

As of today, the Saints are 1.5 games back of the last wildcard spot with seven games to play. After an 0-4 start, just being in the conversation is good enough. Let's leave it at that for right now.

Not only is it much too early to worry with the future possibilities, it would be criminal to not spend the week enjoying this win and reveling in the continued dominance.

Good times never seemed so good.

08 November 2012

By the Numbers: The 2012 Saints Through Eight Games

After eight games, here are the Saints' league-wide ranks in a variety of statistical categories.

Arrows indicate mobility since week four; adjustments reflect league ranking, not raw statistical output. Numbers italicized in parentheses indicate previous ranking after four games.


Offense
* Points/game: 8th  (10th)
* First half points scored: 4th  (10th)
* Second half points scored: 12th  (7th)
* Red zone scoring % (TDs): 1st  (3rd)

* Yards: 5th  (8th)
* Yards/play: 6th  (7th)
* 3rd down conversion %: 7th  (9th)

* Rush yards/game: 30th  (26th)
* Rush yards/attempt: 17th  (9th)
* Rush play %: 32nd --same-- (32nd)

* Pass yards: 2nd  (3rd)
* Pass yards/attempt: 7th (tie)  (14th)

* Point differential: 16th

* DVOA: 7th  (11th)
* WPA10th  (20th)

--------------------------------------------------------------

Defense
* Points allowed/game: 29th (tie)  --same-- (29th)
* First half points allowed: 32nd  (31st)
* Second half points allowed: 25th  (26th)
* Red zone scoring % allowed (TDs): 15th  (14th)

* Yards allowed: 32nd  --same--  (32nd)
* Yards allowed/play: 32nd  (30th)
* 3rd down conversion % allowed: 13th  (19th)

* Rush yards allowed: 32nd  --same--  (32nd)
* Rush yards allowed/attempt: 31st  (30th)

* Pass yards allowed: 29th  (24th)
* Pass yards allowed/attempt: 31st  (30th)

* DVOA: 30th  (28th)
* EPA: 32nd --same--  (32nd)

--------------------------------------------------------------

Assorted
* Turnover Margin (0): 11th (tie)  (8th)
* Penalties: 12th  (27th)
* Passer rating differential: 22nd  (27th)

Drive Stats
* Offense
     - Average starting field position: 32nd  (28th)
     - Drive success rate: 6th  (9th)
     - Points/drive: 5th  (10th)

* Defense
     - Average starting field position: 19th  (22nd)
     - Drive success rate: 31st  (29th)
     - Points allowed/drive: 30th  (29th)

--------------------------------------------------------------

Special Teams
* Thomas Morstead
     - Punting, gross average: 1st (51.2)  (3rd [51.1])
     - Punting, net average: 1st (46.1)  (3rd [45.9])

* Kickoff returns: 9th  (7th)
* Punt returns: 23rd  (21st)
* DVOA: 16th --same-- (16th)


06 November 2012

Week 9, Eagles at Saints: Strange Magic

First, the stats.

Final Score: Saints 28, Eagles 13
Record: 3-5
Complete Box Score
Stat Chart:





STRANGE MAGIC


Maybe Steve Spagnuolo is yet to find that magic wand he keeps talking about, but he and Pete Carmichael summoned some strange magic on Monday night and provided a glimpse of promise for the season's second half.

It was a throwback primetime performance, just a week after the Saints were pasted and embarrassed in Denver.

So what happened? The Saints' defense was hostile enough to shut out the Eagles in five red zone trips and produce a vaunted, adjusted PTOMAC of +6.

Seven sacks, twelve QB hits, and eight tackles for loss? Well I'll be damned.

Will Smith and Jonathan Vilma dusted off their vintage 2009 forms and helped the Saints stay one game back in the loss column for the last wild card spot. Imagine that: Vilma and Smith, staving off suspensions, helping the Saints hang around for another week. So go ahead commish, take a moment and suck on that, why don't you?

Cam Jordan played (I think) his best game as a professional, and continues a steady upward trajectory after a season and a half of NFL football. All's not lost.

Though the Eagles' offensive line appeared staggeringly insufficient, the Saints' front seven (dare I say?) dominated them. That's all that really matters right now. There's proper perspective to be accounted for, but the Saints' defense flashed some signs last night. Even if it was for just one game, it was a welcomed sight. Kill The Head and all that.

There's ... CLICHE WARNING! ... something to build on.



In a similar vein, the offense looked like a different, better unit against the Eagles. Last night's gameplan and overall efficiency, combined with the explosive capacity displayed two weeks ago in Tampa, shows that the offense is close to finally putting it all together.

It couldn't come at a better time with the villainous Falcons coming to New Orleans in a few days.

What's strange about those two previously mentioned offensive performances? In the two games that the offense has looked its best, they've been without Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles respectively.

Presumably, this has forced Carmichael to re-think his gameplans and take an approach that's not heavily centered on the offense's two best playmakers.

In the recent past, the Saints' offense has defined itself through its incredible diversity and shared-wealth philosophy. At times this season, it's seemed like the offense has strayed from that concept because of the immense playmaking capabilities of Graham and Sproles, and thus lulled the offense into predictability and stagnation at times.

Added to that is that opposing defenses are better prepared to defend Sproles and Graham after digesting a year's worth of :gamefilm: on their roles in the Saints' offense.

Without Graham in Tampa, Lance Moore and Joe Morgan were more prominently involved and heavily contributory. Last night without Sproles, the Saints employed a more traditional power rushing attack with efficient games from PT, Ivory, and Ingram.

That Philadelphia was likely not fully prepared for this approach reveals the significance of the creative scheming and diversity that's been lacking without Payton calling the shots.

This isn't to suggest--at all--that the Saints' offense is better off without Graham and Sproles. Of course it's not. But it is to say that, without them, Carmichael has designed his most effective gameplans.

Ideally, the recognition of this--creativity, diversity, unpredictability--will help the offense finally put together a string of 2011-ish offensive performances when Sproles returns. A fully healthy offensive squad, plus gameplanning more varied and less reliant on two players, will help the Saints make a run in these last eight games.

They're not out of this thing just quite yet, so stay tuned. There have been plenty of moments of despair this year, but there's still a little beam of hope bouncing off the walls of this dark cave of a season.

And really, the timing couldn't be any better with the Falcons coming to town. The Saints are fresh off their best win of the season and have won three of four after a disastrous start.

All of a sudden, it feels like their confidence is soaring as the hated, undefeated Falcons come strutting in. A statement win next weekend will make this strangest of seasons all that more compelling.