Bye or no bye, Saints have to feel great about surging offense

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The New Orleans Saints missed out on the holiday gift they desperately wanted when the Detroit Lions failed to pull off the upset Sunday against the Green Bay Packers.

That means New Orleans (13-3) won’t get a first-round playoff bye unless the San Francisco 49ers (12-3) lose or tie tonight at Seattle.

But no matter where they wind up being seeded, the Saints have to feel great about the way their offense has been clicking as they head into the playoffs.

“I feel like we’re an ascending team. And that’s been something that we’ve talked about a lot over the last month, especially,” said quarterback Drew Brees, who said it was important for the Saints to keep the “pedal to the metal” down the stretch to create some momentum. “The teams that really do well in the playoffs I think are the teams that are playing their best football at that time. I think when you look at our stretch of the last five, six weeks, I think that’s the way it’s been each and every week.”

The Saints averaged 40 points per game over the final four weeks of the season, capped by their 42-10 laugher at Carolina on Sunday. It’s almost hard to remember that the Saints’ offense was battling some inconsistency during the first 10 weeks of the season because they have led the league with 36.3 points per game since Week 11.

Running back Alvin Kamara has broken out of his touchdown slump in a huge way. He has four TD runs over the past two weeks after he had just two touchdowns in the first 15 weeks. Tight end Jared Cook has five TD catches over the past four weeks. Brees has been at his peak with a total of 15 TD passes and zero interceptions over the past four weeks. Swiss army knife quarterback Taysom Hill caught his sixth TD pass of the year Sunday on a 45-yard catch-and-run. And you know all about Michael Thomas, who finished his record-breaking season with 149 receptions.

Although the Saints kicked the tires on free agent receiver Antonio Brown last week, sources have indicated both on and off the record that they’re just updating their “ready list” in case their needs change. As long as they’re playing like this, that’s a risk they might not have to take.

On top of everything else, the Saints set a NFL record by turning the ball over just eight times all season -- with zero over the past three games.

The Saints will feel even better if the Seahawks can hook them up with a week off. But they are also getting healthy at the right time. Starting guards Larry Warford and Andrus Peat both returned from injuries Sunday, giving New Orleans its full offensive line intact.

Buy a breakout performance: How in the world did Cook have just 25 TD catches in the first 10 seasons of his career? He now has a career-high nine of them this year after his spectacular one-handed back-shoulder grab in the second quarter. The 6-foot-5, 254-pounder has always been an athletic marvel, and now he seems to have found the perfect offense for his skill set. All nine TDs have come over Cook’s past 10 games as he continues to look more and more comfortable in New Orleans’ offense.

Money player: Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan secured a $500,000 salary escalator in 2020 by recording his 15th sack on Sunday (actually 15.5). He missed out on another $500,000 that would have come with 17 sacks. But it was still a career high. And the five-time Pro Bowler still deserves consideration for the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award.

Troubling trend: A bye week would really help New Orleans’ ailing secondary. Starting cornerback Eli Apple (ankle) and starting safeties Vonn Bell (knee) and Marcus Williams (groin) all missed Sunday’s game with injuries. It’s possible that one or more of them can be back in time for the playoff opener, though. And the Saints do have good depth in the secondary -- including newly acquired cornerback Janoris Jenkins, who cemented Sunday’s win at Carolina with an interception.

Silver lining: Even if the Saints do wind up as the No. 3 seed in the NFC, they should have no qualms about playing on the road. They have the NFL’s best road record over the past two years at 14-2 after another thorough performance on Sunday.