NFL Monday Morning Madness Week 9: Saints rout Bucs, march into NFC’s top spot

With a Week 1 loss in New Orleans on their mind, and a furthering lead on the NFC South at stake, Sunday’s night tilt was primed for a coronation of what seemed to be the NFC’s soon-to-be best team, the Buccaneers.

That is, until the Saints came marching in.

If you can forgive the cheesy reference, you’ll see just how important New Orleans’ statement win was in the NFC. It wasn’t just a victory, it was a season-sweep clinching, 38-3 dismantling of Tom Brady’s Bucs by Drew Brees’ Saints.

“Give New Orleans credit. They kicked our ass in every phase,” Bucs head coach Bruce Arians said after the game.

That they did.

The Saints outgained the Bucs 420-194 in total yards, 138-8 in rushing yards, and Drew Brees threw for four touchdowns and earned a near-perfect 98.9 Total QBR compared to Tom Brady’s abysmal 3.8 mark, as the latter threw for three interceptions on just 5.5 yards per attempt. The 35-point loss was also the largest of Brady’s career, and perhaps, his ugliest.

“It’s about playing better and execution and we all have to do our jobs a lot better,” said Brady. “When you play good teams there’s little margin for error. They’ve been a great team for a long time. They’ve got a lot of good players. If we’re going to beat them we’ve got to play a lot better than we did tonight.”

The Saints do have a lot of good players, but the Bucs do too. Touted as one of the NFL’s best rosters, equipped with one of the league’s best defenses and up-and-coming offenses led by Brady, almost nothing went right for the Bucs. Even newcomer Antonio Brown (three catches, 31 yards) was unable to give the offense a spark.

The most telling moment of the night came early in the third quarter. New Orleans led 31-0 at halftime but the Bucs were able to drive down to the Saints’ one-yard line in their first drive of the second half. But Tampa was denied any points, as Brady threw three incomplete passes (one was a Rob Gronkowski drop) at the goal line, and the Saints took over on downs, effectively slamming the door shut on their victory.

“When things don’t go your way…sometimes they keep going that way,” said Brady. “We have to figure out how to stop it and turn it around, and we had our opportunities and we just didn’t do it.”

Opportunity was the word I was most thinking of heading into Sunday’s game. After the Seahawks lost to the Bills earlier in the day, it was clear what was at stake for both teams, but even more so for Tampa. A win would have not only given them bragging rights as the NFC’s best team at midseason, it would have put the Bucs at the top of the conference and a game and a half above the Saints in the NFC South, which now looks to be a wire-to-wire race.

If you’re the Saints, you have to feel good about this victory — a season sweep over the NFL team getting the most attention. Brees, who began the year as the league’s all-time leading touchdown passer, has been criticized and questioned as it appeared his play had declined, and his arm strength slipped even a little bit more. The former, at least, was not a concern on Sunday.

“Brady is still the second greatest quarterback for a reason,” Saints defensive end Cam Jordan said after the game, seemingly in a way of backing his own QB.

Stuck in an era with the likes of Brady, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers, and with others like Patrick Mahomes soon to hog all-time glory, Brees has been forgotten among the league’s all-time best QBs. No, he doesn’t belong above Brady or Manning on any all-time lists, but Rodgers? Maybe. What about Brett Favre, Dan Marino and some others? Maybe them too, honestly. But he isn’t talked about as such.

Regardless of what’s being talked about, Brees extended his regained lead over Brady in all-time touchdown passes on Sunday, and moved to 5-2 versus the GOAT in their seven head-to-head meetings.

Ripe with talent and unique playmakers such as Alvin Kamara, Taysom Hill and Michael Thomas (who returned on Sunday), the Saints have enough offensive firepower to continue to play the game their way, without having to listen to any qualms some might have with their unwillingness to push the ball downfield.

The three aforementioned playmakers (Kamara, Hill, Thomas) are among the NFL’s best players in confined spaces, winning their battles by either finessing or bulldozing defenders, or catching contested catches over the middle. And they’re led by Brees, perhaps the most accurate quarterback in NFL history. They can win this way, despite what you think of Brees’ 41-year-old throwing arm.

And what about the defense? The talented unit has had some troubles in the first half of the season, but they’ve at least been sturdy against the run. Tampa ran the ball only five times on Sunday, as the game quickly got away from them, but it was clear they weren’t going to amass much on the ground, as the Saints swallowed up any attempts. That led to a flurry of Brady pass attempts early and often, mostly with a Saints pass rush in his face.

Now, the top of the NFC is jumbled. There’s a logjam with the likes of the Saints, Bucs, Seahawks and Packers in the race for the conference’s top seed, which is more important than ever with the new rules in place making it the only team in the conference to get a first-round bye.

But make no mistake, the Saints are now the NFC’s top dog, even if just by a slim margin. And the talent on their team suggests they’ll only get better.

NFL MVP RACE

Here is my second look at the NFL MVP race, which is a section I’m creating for after Week 6, Week 9, Week 12 and every post-weekend column after Week 14.

1) Russell Wilson — That was a dud in Buffalo, but it was a dud in which the Seahawks were still able to score 34 points. But MVP voters should be able to see through this performance. That was his first bad game of the season. He was careless with the football. Still, he is your midseason MVP, but just by a hair. This next guy is now right there with him. Wilson is far from a shoe-in for his first MVP award. He’ll certainly need to earn it. I won’t doubt him, though. He’ll bounce back.

2) Patrick Mahomes — Mahomes causally has thrown for 25 touchdowns and just one interception during a 8-1 start and is barely mentioned in the MVP race. LeBron-like voter fatigue has already begun to minimize his accomplishments in just his third year as a starter. He’s right there with Wilson for the award at the season’s midway point.

3) Aaron Rodgers — Rodgers is definitely having an MVP-type season, but his egg-laying in Tampa Bay a few weeks ago places him soundly in third, looking up at Wilson and Mahomes as true lead candidates. Nonetheless, it’s impressive what he’s been able to do in Year 2 under Matt LaFeur’s offense, and that’s with a lack of pass-catching talent outside of Davante Adams.

4) Kyler Murray — Losses like Sunday’s in Miami put him more in the race for Offensive Player of the Year, but still, you can’t knock what he’s done in just Year 2.

5) Tom Brady — Barring an insane run these last seven weeks, both statistically and win-loss-wise, Brady lost any chance at this award with Sunday’s performance. Luckily for him, he did inspire what will be a huge list of doubters and off-the-wall takes, which is what he feeds off.

Honorable mention: Josh Allen, Ryan Tannehill, Derrick Henry/Dalvin Cook (RBs! — Let’s face it, these two are OPOY candidates only)

THE BETTER HALF

1. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-0) (Last week: 1). Dallas did everything they could to knock off the Steelers in a game that surprisingly became a slug fest. But good teams find a way to win, even on their off days. The Steelers did just that.

2. Kansas City Chiefs (8-1) (Last week: 2). They have some problems on defense, but we knew that. They win anyway. It seems Patrick Mahomes literally can’t play a bad game, or even an average one, really. And his stat line for the last two weeks? 788 yards, nine touchdown passes, zero interceptions. That’s silly. The Steelers may be the best team at the moment, but let’s be clear, the Chiefs are favored to repeat as Super Bowl Champions.

3. Baltimore Ravens (6-2) (Last week: 5). Fresh off another disappointing loss, the Ravens took their frustrations out on the Colts. That was an impressive showing in Indianapolis. No, the Colts aren’t an opponent on par with the Steelers or Chiefs, but they were a 5-2 team with a talented defense and solid coach, playing at home. For Lamar Jackson, that was as good of a moral victory as it was a real one. They can beat good teams, but we still need to see them beat a great one, particularly in January.

4. New Orleans Saints (6-2) (Last week: 6). Whether Drew Brees is starting to slip or not, the Saints have the talent to reach, and win, the Super Bowl. But we’re just getting started. Here comes the second half of the regular season. Will they get the NFC’s top seed? It’s way too early to tell. But that was quite the statement in Tampa Bay.

5. Green Bay Packers (6-2) (Last week: 7). The 49ers have been absolutely destroyed by injuries, so Aaron Rodgers’ fabulous performance on Thursday for a Green Bay win over San Francisco wasn’t exactly a demon-exorcising event, but they’ll take it.

6. Tennessee Titans (6-2) (Last week: 8). The Bears offense certainly isn’t scaring anyone, but that was an encouragingly sound win at home for the Titans. Desmond King Jr., a versatile former All-Pro defensive back coming over from Chargers, was a good trade for them. The Titans had been missing Logan Ryan in their secondary. King fills that role.

7. Buffalo Bills (7-2) (Last week: 9). That was a nice turn-back-the-clock performance from Josh Allen, who looked more like his September self in their win over the Seahawks on Sunday. They are soundly in tier 2 in the tough AFC.

8. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-3) (Last week: 3). After his five-touchdown performance in Las Vegas two weeks ago, Tom Brady’s offense sputtered versus the Giants last week and came to a screeching halt at home versus the Saints on Sunday. Yes, Tampa’s defense, which has been touted as one of the NFL’s best, did not play well, but this was more on the offense. Three points? In that game? At home? They are simply too inconsistent on offense to be fully trusted. Doubt Brady at your own risk, but they didn’t look right on Sunday night. Bucs fans should be concerned, but not hysterical.

9. Seattle Seahawks (6-2) (Last week: 4). It’s not too surprising that the Seahawks lost a cross-country road game to a talented opponent, but the way in which they were beat is concerning. But we knew what they were. This season, Russell Wilson has been playing at an MVP-level in a run-n’-gun offense, while the defense has been one of the league’s worst, particularly in defending the pass and rushing the passer. As fun as they are, I’m not sure even Wilson can lead this team to a Super Bowl with the defense as is. They may not meet their demise until as late as the NFC title game or Super Bowl, but the Seahawks’ defense will ultimately be their undoing. They are not a good unit.

10. Miami Dolphins (5-3) (Last week: 12). The talk will be centered around rookie QB Tua Tagovailoa this week, and for good reason, he was awesome on Sunday. But I think it’s time to start talking about Brian Flores as a Coach-of-the-Year candidate. He’d probably be second on my list after Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin at this point.

11. Arizona Cardinals (5-3) (Last week: 11). As great as their offense has been, they were shutout 10-0 in the fourth quarter at home versus Miami with a chance to take the lead (via tiebreaker over Seattle) in the NFC West, had they won. That stings.

12. Los Angeles Rams (5-3) (Last week: 13). They move up during their bye week. Next up: a home game versus division rival Seattle. Can they make the NFC West even more of a tight-knit group?

13. Las Vegas Raiders (5-3) (Last week: 16). They withstood two dropped end-zone fades on the game’s final two plays to outlast the Chargers. They look like an AFC wild card team. Jon Gruden deserves a ton of credit.

14. Indianapolis Colts (5-3) (Last week: 11). Yes, the Ravens may be a better team, but that was a discouraging loss for at Colts club that feels like one of the league’s best overall rosters. Sadly, as expected, Phillip Rivers and the offense can’t be trusted in big games, and that falls mostly on Rivers.

15. Cleveland Browns (5-3) (Last week: NR). The teams below them were so bad this week, that the Browns, fresh off a 16-6, inept home loss to the Raiders, move into this spot after their bye week.

16. Chicago Bears (5-4) (Last week: 14). They go here for now because no other team below them seems like they have a chance for the playoffs, minus the NFC East-leading Eagles. It’s becoming apparent that Chicago is not a playoff-quality team.

Next up: Philadelphia, Minnesota, San Francisco, Atlanta, Carolina

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