The New Orleans Saints offense doesn't look like the New Orleans Saints offense.
The New Orleans Saints defense doesn't look like the New Orleans Saints defense.
But the New Orleans Saints are looking like the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
"Walking off the field just a while ago, it felt like, man, there was tons of opportunities out there," said Drew Brees after the Saints' 12-9 win over the host Carolina Panthers on Monday night. "We killed ourselves on a few drives with some stupid penalties. Felt like there were some missed opportunities.
"But listen, bottom line, you go on the road in the division, especially on Monday Night Football against a team that has a ton to play for, right? They're still fighting for a playoff spot. ... You know it's going to be a battle but the bottom line is you make the plays at the end of the game to win the game."
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton struggled, completing 16 of 29 passes for 131 yards, no touchdowns and an interception.
"We didn't uphold our end of the bargain today," Newton said of the Saints' offense. "We just didn't sustain drives. Our defense played a helluva game and we got to reward them when they do those things."
For most of the previous three games, the Saints have had trouble sustaining anything offensively. The running game has been sporadic, the offensive line has been erratic, the lack of more than one dependable wide receiver has been exploited by opponents and Brees has looked like an ordinary quarterback.
The performance in a 13-10 loss at Dallas on Nov. 29 could have been seen as an aberration, an overdue sub-par performance against a very good defense after a nearly flawless five weeks.
But the lack of productivity extended through the first half of the following game as the Saints trailed Tampa Bay, 14-3, at halftime.
A 25-0 blitz in the second half against the Buccaneers produced a 28-14 victory and suggested perhaps the offensive struggles were a blip. But that second half could have also been seen as New Orleans taking advantage of a bad team that couldn't sustain its 30 minutes of success for 60.
So the game at Carolina on Monday night was an opportunity to see which way the offense was trending.
It now looks like the second half at Tampa Bay might have been the aberration.
The offense struggled for 60 minutes, though it ultimately produced just enough points to secure the victory over the free-falling Panthers.
Newton's continuing shoulder problem was a major part of his post-game session with reporters.
"Obviously my arm hasn't allowed me to do a lot of practice," he said. "I've been on a pitch count for a long time. It hasn't got worse over the weeks and hasn't got better over the weeks. Nothing changes. Just a lot of soreness and tension in the joint."
For the Saints, it was a gutsy win and one that concluded with only two of New Orleans' offensive line starters playing in their normal positions.
"We really put ourselves in a position to win that game in the fourth quarter and that's what it is all about," said Brees, who had 203 yards passing against Carolina. "That's what the great teams find a way to do despite what happens in the previous three quarters."
Certainly the offense's struggles have included a drop-off in performance by the offensive line. Left tackle Terron Armstead appears close to returning from an arm injury and the concussion suffered by center Max Unger on Monday might not be a long-term set-back.
Perhaps a healthy offensive line is all that's getting in the way of a return to the offense's mid-season productivity.
But there is still reason to wonder about the wide receiving corps even if Ted Ginn Jr. comes off of injured reserve at some point.
The track record suggests the offense will revert to being far more productive sooner rather than later. But until it happens that is a concern.
As for the defense, it is carrying this team for a period of time far longer than any other since Sean Payton became head coach in 2006.
New Orleans leads the NFL in scoring defense since Week 4. It has not allowed more than 17 points in any of the last six games.
It is the primary reason this team has won two out of three - all on the road - during the offense's slump.
Sacks, takeaways and three-and-outs have become commonplace.
It's significant that the rise in the level of play by the defense has lasted much longer than the drop in the level of play by the offense has lasted.
The Saints have shown development in all three units of the defense. The line has been a strength all season, Demario Davis has been one of the most significant free-agent additions in the NFL this season with the way he has led a solid linebacking corps and Vonn Bell and Eli Apple showed on Monday night that there are playmakers in the secondary beyond Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams.
Despite the offense's struggles and despite the difficulty the Saints had in giving Carolina its sixth consecutive loss, it's hard to imagine New Orleans (12-2) not being the top seed in the NFC, thanks to Rams losing to the Eagles on Sunday a week after they lost to the Bears.
The Saints' magic number to lock up the No. 1 seed in the NFC is one. Regardless of what the Rams do in the final two weeks against Arizona and San Francisco, New Orleans can clinch by beating either Pittsburgh next week or Carolina the week after that.
Both of those games will be played in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
In fact, if the Saints do become the No. 1 seed, Monday night's game was their last game outside the Superdome until either this season's Super Bowl or the first road game of next season.
With a potential opportunity to rest starters in Week 17, an almost-certain first-round bye and likely home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs, the question marks on offense are something New Orleans can live with for the time being.