EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Not that we haven’t seen it before, but it’s still amazing to watch how quickly things can change — and often do — in the NFL.
Less than a month ago, on the morning of Oct. 13, the New Orleans Saints were 5-0 going into a big matchup with the New England Patriots. At that point, the Saints looked for all the world that they would clinch the NFC South title by the time they sat down for Thanksgiving dinner.
Not so much now as two losses in the past three games, coupled with four wins in a row by the Carolina Panthers — yes, the Panthers — have made it a race again. Now, the Saints’ seemingly insurmountable lead in the division has dwindled to just one game.
On top of that, there’s still a lot of football to be played as the Saints just reached the season’s midway point with Sunday’s 26-20 loss to the New York Jets.
Eight games down. Eight games to go. It’s the perfect time to see just how the Saints have fared position-by-position so far:
Quarterback: It’s always a good place to start for the Saints, who have gotten solid play from Drew Brees for the most part. He’s among the league leaders in yards (second, 2,672), touchdowns (second, 21), completion percentage (fourth, 66.1) and passer rating (fourth, 104.5). On top of that, Brees has thrown just seven interceptions after getting picked 19 times in 2012 when he tied for the league lead. Grade: A
Offensive line: This is where things get sticky for the offense, which continues to put up yards and points on a pretty consistent basis. The unit of Charles Brown, Ben Grubbs, Brian de la Puente, Jahri Evans and Zach Strief has allowed Brees to take way too many hits, and he’s been sacked 20 times — just below his average of 20.3 sacks per season since coming to the Saints in 2006. The offensive line has also been plagued by penalties with 21 — including 15 holding calls, even tough three were declined. Grade: C
Running backs: Speaking of problems, there’s the running game. On his return this spring, Sean Payton vowed to put an emphasis on running the ball like they did in 2009 and 2011, when they averaged more than 130 yards a game. But they haven’t overwhelmed anyone in averaging 79.8 yards per game, which ranked 26th in the league as of Monday. They’re 29th with 3.3 yards per attempt and are tied for 24th with three rushing touchdowns. Veterans Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles and Mark Ingram, who missed five games with a toe injury, have combined for 445 yards, and their long run this season is just 21 yards. Grade: D-minus
Wide receivers: Saints wideouts aren’t seeing as many passes as they have in the past, with the biggest reason being the play of tight end Jimmy Graham, and they’ve combined for only 66 receptions and six touchdowns. Lance Moore was out for three games with a hand injury and Marques Colston didn’t play Sunday because of a knee problem, but they’ve combined for only 40 catches for 490 yards and two touchdowns. Rookie Kenny Stills has been a big plus with 16 receptions for 362 yards and is averaging a league-leading 22.6 yards a catch with three scores. Grade: B-minus
Tight ends: Graham is having a monster season, his no-catch day at New England when he was blanketed most of the day by cornerback Aqib Talib notwithstanding. Graham has 49 receptions for 746 yards and 10 touchdowns. He leads all NFL tight ends in receptions and touchdowns despite drawing a lot of double-teams. Benjamin Watson has done a nice job as a blocker and receiver, and rookie Josh Hill is getting a lot of reps. Grade: A-plus
Defensive line: The Saints have been rocked by injuries here as nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley and ends Akiem Hicks, Tom Johnson and Tyrunn Walker have all been nicked up. That has caused some inconsistency in stopping the run as the Saints have allowed 121.3 yards per game. On a brighter note, ends Cameron Jordan and linebacker Junior Galette, who puts his hand in the ground when the Saints switch to a four-man front, have been solid pass rushers with six and five sacks for a team that already has 26 after collecting 30 all of last season. Grade: B-minus
Linebackers: This unit has done a decent job as well despite numerous injuries that knocked out three of their four projected starters — Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma and Victor Butler — before the season began. But Galette and newcomer Parys Haralson have done a good job on the outside, with Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne anchoring inside as the top two tacklers on the team. Grade: B
Secondary: In addition to beefing up the pass rush, another priority for the defense was getting better play in the defensive backfield. Cornerback Keenan Lewis, with a team-high three interceptions, and aggressive safety Kenny Vaccaro have made plays and been difference-makers. Free safety Malcolm Jenkins and strong safety Roman Harper, before he hurt his knee, have thrived in Rob Ryan’s system and have helped limit the big plays they’ve given up. The Saints rank fifth in pass defense at 211.9 yards per game after finishing 31st last season and have allowed just eight touchdown passes after giving up 31 a year ago, which have contributed to them ranking fifth in points allowed at 18.3 per game. Grade: B-plus
Special teams: The Saints haven’t been as good as they have in the past in the return game, averaging just 20.4 yards per kickoff return and 7.8 yards per punt return, and they’re allowing 26.4 yards a kickoff return. But they are solid with punter Thomas Morstead averaging 46.5 gross yards and 42.8 net yards a kick. Kicker Garrett Hartley has made 16 of 21 field-goal attempts despite missing three in a row for the first time in his career, but he made a career-long 55-yarder in the loss to the Jets. Grade: B-minus