The New Orleans Saints did exactly what they needed to do on Sunday afternoon. They beat up on an offensively challenged playoff opponent. They utilized an assortment of weapons on offense and flew around the field on defense. It was the kind of efficient performance that a veteran team craves in a first-round matchup and, more importantly, it reminded us all of what this team should look like when it's finally whole.
Of all the playoff games on Super Wild Card Weekend, the Saints' 21-9 win over Chicago was one of the easier matchups to predict. The Saints were heavily favored -- largely because of the Bears' limited offense -- and there was little suspense involved in this contest. The major takeaway is that the Saints gave us a decent glimpse of what they'll be bringing to this year's postseason as the games become more intense. It might just be enough to get them back in the Super Bowl after so many years of heartbreaking playoff losses.
This win was about taking a solid step forward, with all their stars back on the field again.
"We have some work to do," said Saints quarterback Drew Brees. "It was the first time that we're really getting everybody together again. Hopefully we get (wide receiver) Tre'Quan Smith back (off injured reserve with an ankle injury). There's just so much timing and rhythm that goes into the passing game. So many little nuances. When you're playing a lot, it becomes automatic. That's when you're really playing at a level that we've been at in many cases around here."
It's been quite some time since we could watch a Saints game and see their team intact. They went nine games without the services of star wide receiver Michael Thomas, who was sidelined for the last three weeks with a nagging ankle injury. They lost Brees for four games because of 11 fractured ribs and a punctured lung. Pro Bowl running back Alvin Kamara had his issues, too, as a bout with COVID-19 sidelined him for the regular-season finale.
The Saints managed to win 12 games and an NFC South title despite all those issues, which speaks to their depth of talent and elite defense. However, they still needed a game like this in order to get everybody comfortable after so many absences. There was plenty of rust that needed to be shaken off and that was apparent in how the Saints performed early in this game.
"We shot ourselves in the foot on a few early downs," said Saints head coach Sean Payton of his team's slow start. "I think those are things we can clean up and correct."
The importance of the Saints being healthy and ready can't be overstated because the NFC postseason situation is already as intriguing as it's been in recent memory. The top-seeded Green Bay Packers are riding all the momentum created by Pro Bowl quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who is playing at an MVP level. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who'll meet the Saints in the Divisional Round, brought Tom Brady into their franchise for exactly these types of opportunities. The Los Angeles Rams may have quarterback issues, but their defense is unquestionably championship-caliber.
The point to be made here is that nothing is going to come easy for anybody. The Saints should know this as well as any team because they've been devastated by playoff defeats in each of the last three seasons. They've dealt with Stefon Diggs' miraculous, last-second, catch-and-run touchdown in Minnesota in 2017. They fumed over a clearly missed pass interference by the Rams in the 2018 NFC Championship Game and watched Kirk Cousins upset them in a home playoff loss in the Wild Card Round last year. This is not a team lacking in motivational tools for this time of year.
That's why the Saints' win on Sunday felt extremely business-like, as if they knew what simply needed to be done to set themselves up for the next opportunity.
"Despite the first half, where we felt like we weren't able to capitalize on some of the drives and really get significant points, the defense played lights out, special teams played well and we played the field position game at times," Brees said. "It was just great complementary football all the way around. Sometimes you have to do that to win and that's what the great teams do."
The Saints had to feel good about the final results in this one. Brees was efficient, throwing for 265 yards and two touchdowns. Kamara ran for 99 yards and a score, Thomas produced five receptions for 73 yards and another receiver who just returned from injury, Deonte Harris, led the team with seven catches for 83 yards.
"Nothing changes when you get back," Kamara said. "You just plug and play."
The Saints' defense was the more impressive unit on Sunday. It so demoralized the Chicago offense that the Bears only gained 239 yards and converted one of their 10 third-down opportunities. As well as the Bears played on defense early, that lack of offense killed them over time. As soon as Brees connected with running back Latavius Murray on a 6-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter -- a score that gave New Orleans a 14-3 lead -- this contest was effectively over. There was no way beleaguered Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky would overcome that deficit with Chicago's limitations.
When asked about his defense, Payton said, "I thought we tackled well in space. I thought our third-down numbers were good. Ultimately, we forced them to become one-dimensional. When you're able to do that, you can win a lot of games."
The Saints now get their third shot at Tampa Bay, which has to give them some confidence heading into the next round. New Orleans won both games between the two teams this year, including a 38-3 slaughter on Nov. 8. The Buccaneers have been playing much better over the last few weeks -- as they've won five straight games -- and they also have Brady operating with plenty of his own weapons. As Brees said, "The minute he signed with the Bucs and came to the division, you felt like that was going to be a team to contend with, (one) with playoff aspirations like ours. So I guess it was inevitable."
The good news for New Orleans is that it enters this next round with nearly all its firepower intact. It's been a while since the Saints could say that, but they also know how dangerous they've now become. They proved on Sunday that they could shake off the rust. The next step will be seeing how far that talent can take them as the challenges become a lot more substantial.