The Saints have always had an affinity for defying conventional norms. Back when football’s prevailing mantra was “run the ball, play good D, control the clock”, the Saints did none of those things, playing the run-and-gun style more often seen in Madden. With stud quarterback Drew Brees under center, they’ve done so to the tune of decent success; they’re 11th in the league in wins since 2006, Brees’ 1st year in New Orleans. They’re also one of just 9 teams to have won a Super Bowl in that span.

Now, as NFL becomes more and more of a passing league, the Saints have decided to go retro and pound the ball down their opponents’ throats, and in the process they’ve snagged the NFC South lead at 10-4 and have their sights set on another ring.

Brees serves as a great statistical barometer for the Saints’ bizarre antics. He was a solid QB in his 5 years in San Diego, but he never even eclipsed 4000 yards. In New Orleans, however, his style has been not only unique but transcendent; not only has he surpassed the 4000 yard mark in each of his 11 seasons in the Big Easy, he led the league in yards seven times, including each of the last three seasons.

This year, he’s taken a back seat (somewhat) to the running game. After tossing 40 passes per game going in, he’s down to 34 this year, hardly making him a game manager, but certainly not a negligible drop-off. Consequently, his decision making has vastly improved; he’s completed 71.8% of his passes, the best mark both in the league and of his career, and he’s thrown picks on just 1.5% of passes, also the lowest figure he’s ever had.

Brees has also been atypical in the manner in which he’s distributed the ball throughout his career. Despite his gunslinging ways, he hasn’t been shy about sharing the wealth; no Saint has ever caught 100 passes in the Brees era. The primary beneficiaries of this altruism have been his running backs. Whether it was Reggie Bush, Darren Sproles, or CJ Spiller, the Saints have almost always featured a potent receiving back.

Nowadays, versatile backs capable of going the distance out of the backfield are the norm, as more teams veer away from smash-mouth football. The Saints weren’t the only team doing this back in the 2000s, but dual threat backs like Ladainian Tomlinson and Brian Westbrook were few and far between, making the Saints a unique offense to scheme against each week. With this experience, the Saints have positioned themselves as the kings of the screen game.

This year, Alvin Kamara plays that role. The 3rd-round rookie is 7th in the entire league among both backs and receivers in yards from scrimmage, having already accumulated 600 yards both rushing and receiving. The man in 5th on that list is Mark Ingram, who just happens to be another Saints back. A more physical runner, he and Kamara form a lethal thunder and lightning tandem that gives opposing defensive coordinators insomnia. The Saints lead the league in yards per carry, which would’ve been unfathomable to anyone who’d watched them during the previous decade.

Ultimately, however, these gaudy stats will be all for naught if the Saints’ defense can’t get stops. They managed to win the Super Bowl in 2009 despite finishing a putrid 28th in yards allowed per game by leading the league in takeaways; this year’s D is only tied for 14th in takeaways. Fortunately, the running game has been so good that the defense hasn’t been on the field as often. The Cowboys used a similar model last year en route to the best record in the NFC, and with an experienced quarterback, the Saints may have a better playoff run than the Dak Prescott-led Cowboys.

Brees moonlights as the failsafe; with an elite QB, falling behind early isn’t a death sentence. Above all, however, Brees must protect the football, since the defense isn’t reliable enough to consistently stop opposing drives.

So where do the Saints stack up against the rest of the league? They have the misfortune of playing in the NFC; in the AFC they’d have a safe hold on either the 3 or 4 seed, but with the NFC’s level of competition, one loss could put them out of the playoff picture. Counterbalancing this though is the luck they’ve had with their schedule—their 3 games against division leaders (Minnesota, New England, and the LA Rams) have all been losses, showing that a stronger schedule could have resulted in a much different record. Aside from that, it’ll be a dogfight just to win the division; Carolina is also 10-4 and Atlanta is 8-5. If they sneak in, and their defense can stay off the field, they’re as dangerous as anyone.

*Photo Credit: Grant Halverson/Getty Images

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