Saints clicking at right time amid playoff, division races

NEW ORLEANS -- The New Orleans Saints looked like they were having fun again Sunday.

The Saints (7-7) poked fun at New York Giants quarterback Tommy DeVito and piled up defensive sacks in a 24-6 win. They celebrated offensive touchdowns and heard more cheers than they had in the prior two weeks during a three-game homestand.

Saints quarterback Derek Carr said that the Week 15 win was the kind of performance he envisioned from the team when he signed with New Orleans in the offseason. Now the Saints will try to keep the positive momentum going in what could be a pivotal NFC matchup on "Thursday Night Football" against the Los Angeles Rams (7-7).

"To hear the crowd cheering every touchdown, running in the tunnel, everyone's going nuts 'Derek we love you!' I was like 'I've always loved you!'" Carr joked after hearing boos from the home crowd this season. "All that stuff is good, and it's good for our city, it's good for our team. ... We've got to give them something to get excited about, and we were able to do that today."

The Saints had a season-high seven sacks against the Giants (5-9) and allowed only 60 net rushing yards -- their lowest total since allowing just 45 in a 34-0 shutout of the New England Patriots in Week 5 -- and 11 of their 30 sacks on the season have come in the last two games.

"There have been a couple other games ... where I feel like we put a complete game together," said coach Dennis Allen. "I do feel like this was a complete game for our team."

The Saints remain tied with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-7) at the top of the NFC South with both getting wins Sunday, but the Atlanta Falcons (6-8) fell one game behind in the race after falling to the 2-12 Carolina Panthers. Things can be simple for the Saints: win their last three games, and they win the division with a matchup in Week 17 against the Bucs looming.

The Rams game (8:15 p.m. ET, Prime Video) becomes crucial because there's still the opportunity to get a wild-card spot in the playoffs if they don't win the division as well, and a win would also give them a three-game win streak for the first time this season.

It would also validate an opinion several Saints players expressed Sunday: They're getting better at the right time.

"These are when the wins kind of count," running back Alvin Kamara said. "We need to be playing our best ball right now, so I think that's what's going on a little bit."

The Saints know that any momentum gained in those wins would come to a quick halt if they can't prove themselves Thursday night.

"To get that validation from us working hard -- knowing it's not just going to happen overnight even though we all felt confident -- it feels good, and it feels good that we're improving, getting healthier, all those things," Carr said. "It's all going in the right direction, but like [linebacker Demario Davis] said, if we don't take care of business on Thursday, it won't feel good again."

Carr's idea of the offense from the outset was to run an efficient unit that spread the ball around like some of the highly successful teams that future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees led.

That plan hasn't worked as well as Carr might have hoped, but Sunday they were without leading wide receiver Chris Olave -- who was out with an ankle injury.

Carr passed to 10 different players, had a season-high three touchdown passes and finished with a passer rating of 134.8. His three scores came from wide receiver Keith Kirkwood, who hasn't scored a touchdown since 2018, and tight ends Jimmy Graham and Juwan Johnson.

"It wasn't perfect, but guys were making catches, guys were running their routes, the efficiency and the timing, when we needed them to be there, they were there," Carr said. "This is what I dreamed of. I know a lot of people want the stats for one guy and all that kind of stuff, but I've always felt the best football teams always spread it out and whoever could have a big day, whoever can have the touchdowns. It's good for the team."

Allen said that Olave was a game-time decision, but his health and the looming short week caused the Saints to rule him out.

"I don't think he felt like he was going to be able to do the things he needed to do to be effective, particularly with us playing a Thursday night game," Allen said. "Trying to get him healthy and get him back in for that game kind of went into that decision a little bit."

The Saints are also eligible to open the practice window for wide receiver Michael Thomas this week, but If Olave and Thomas remain out, that'll leave the door open for players like Kirkwood -- who touted the offense's growing confidence as a reason for their success against the Giants.

"I don't think anybody in this offense lost faith in what we have," Kirkwood said. "There were ups and downs, and obviously we want to continue to climb the hill, but at the end of the day we all stuck together. ... That's what happened today, and that's why we were able to be successful."