Admit it: You thought the New Orleans Saints would fade without Drew Brees.
It’s fine. That’s the normal reaction when a team loses an all-time great quarterback. Those teams just hang on and hope for the best. And usually they collapse.
It’s very rare to see a team go on a winning streak with a Hall of Fame quarterback out, but that’s what the Saints have done. And in the process, Saints coach Sean Payton has solidified his legacy and it’s pretty clear New Orleans is a Super Bowl contender. They’ve strengthened that position without Brees, which nobody expected.
This isn’t a situation in which a quarterback controversy has emerged. The Saints are 5-0 with Teddy Bridgewater starting, and he has done his job managing games and contributing to wins. Yet, everyone knows Brees will make the Saints better. That’s a little scary.
And that’s why the Saints are moving up in this week’s Power Rankings. File your complaints, 49ers fans.
The undefeated 49ers have been very good and deserving of the praise they’ve received during their winning streak. They’re no fluke. The ugly 9-0 win over the Redskins wasn’t great, but not the only reason the Saints have leapfrogged them this week. This is about what these two teams will be, not what they have done already.
The Saints have lost a game, but that came against the Rams when Brees injured his thumb. It’s hard for a team to adjust in-game to a backup quarterback. It’s hard to hold that against the Saints. What we’ve seen since then has been amazing. The Saints haven’t just caught an easy part of the schedule. They have quality wins without Brees at Seattle and Chicago and a home win over Dallas. The Saints won Sunday without star running back Alvin Kamara, and tight end Jared Cook as well. The defense has given up 257 yards or less in four straight games. The Bears have offensive issues, but they had four first downs through three-plus quarters against the Saints on Sunday. The Saints looked dominant in blasting the Bears. New Orleans’ special teams have made plays too.
Brees is going to return to a well-rounded team that can obviously win without him. What the Saints have done without Brees probably isn’t getting enough attention. Then take all the progress the Saints have made the past five games and add a quarterback who is the NFL’s all-time leader in passing yards.
That’s what the 49ers don’t have. They have the defense, which is led by a superior line. The running game is fantastic. They’re well coached. The Saints check those boxes too, and they will have a huge edge at quarterback if Brees looks like his old self.
The weird part about the 49ers’ undefeated start is that Jimmy Garoppolo hasn’t done much. He had 10 passing yards at halftime on Sunday. It was raining and that’s a great excuse for a quiet passing day, but the interception he threw to Washington safety Troy Apke was just a bad decision with a safety coming over to help. That had nothing to do with the weather. Garoppolo is averaging 219 yards per game with seven touchdowns and six interceptions. He’s been fine. But if you’re picking between the Saints and 49ers, you have to consider the discrepancy at quarterback. It’s no contest.
Other NFC teams have an argument as the conference’s best team. The Packers really looked good on Sunday. Now that the Vikings offense has come alive, they’re dangerous. Even the Cowboys have flirted with contender status and looked the part in their win over the Eagles. But the Saints and 49ers are a class above right now, and the Saints have shown they should be considered the best team in the NFC.
And they’re all just chasing the No. 2 spot behind the New England Patriots.
Here are the Power Rankings after Week 7 of the NFL season:
32. Miami Dolphins (0-6, Last week: 32)
The Dolphins have gone from perhaps the worst team in the Super Bowl era to a little better than that the past couple weeks. They’ve been feisty enough with Ryan Fitzpatrick it’s fair to wonder if the Bengals are the worst team in the NFL (not yet, but Miami doesn’t look like an 0-16 lock anymore).
31. Cincinnati Bengals (0-7, LW: 31)
I’d be shocked if Andy Dalton is back for another season in Cincinnati. And I’m starting to wonder if rookie coach Zac Taylor will be either. He was a dubious hire and there aren’t any signs of progress.
30. Washington Redskins (1-6, LW: 30)
A big shout out to any Redskins fan who went to Sunday’s game and stayed until the end of that 9-0 loss in a downpour. I’m not sure this awful franchise deserves your fandom, but kudos for sticking it out at the absolute worst of times.
29. Atlanta Falcons (1-6, LW: 29)
Dan Quinn said after Sunday’s game that he started sharing defensive play-calling duties with other assistants the past two games, according to D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I don’t know that this is all Quinn’s fault, but it has spiraled out of control under his watch and it’s surprising owner Arthur Blank hasn’t made a move yet.
28. New York Jets (1-5, LW: 28)
It’s hard to reconcile what Sam Darnold did against the Cowboys and what he did against the Patriots. The Cowboys aren’t that bad. Are the Patriots just that good? Whatever the reason, Darnold looked like a completely different player than the one who was sharp against Dallas. Darnold was absolutely, positively miserable on Monday night.
27. New York Giants (2-5, LW: 24)
When the Giants made Daniel Jones their starter, there was no turning back. He has struggled lately, but that’s no huge surprise. Most rookie quarterbacks do. Pat Shurmur did the right thing and shut down all speculation about going back to Eli Manning. If we see Manning start again this season, and it’s not injury related, that’s a really bad sign for the Giants.
26. Los Angeles Chargers (2-5, LW: 21)
I can’t get my head around how the Chargers lost on Sunday. Yet, when an apparent final-minute touchdown by Austin Ekeler was reversed and he was ruled down at the 1-yard line, you knew it wasn’t automatic that the Chargers would score. Because they’re the Chargers.
25. Denver Broncos (2-5, LW: 19)
The Broncos offense was beyond awful last Thursday night against the Chiefs and the defense wasn’t much better. There had been some signs of hope before then, but that’s pretty much gone. This should be the most active team in the NFL at the trade deadline, selling off all their veteran pieces, but we’ll see.
24. Cleveland Browns (2-4, LW: 25)
The Browns play at the Patriots next. Unless they can pull that upset, they’re looking at a 2-5 start. Poor Browns fans.
23. Arizona Cardinals (3-3-1, LW: 27)
Chandler Jones had four sacks against the Giants, and has 8.5 for the season. Jones has had four straight seasons with double-digit sacks and is about to make it five in a row.
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-4, LW: 22)
SI.com’s Albert Breer said the Patriots asked about a trade for O.J. Howard and were told no. Why? The Buccaneers aren’t using Howard and apparently have no desire to change that, so why not deal him?
21. Pittsburgh Steelers (2-4, LW: 20)
The Steelers get the Dolphins next, then home games against the Colts and Rams. Assuming a win over the Dolphins, if the Steelers can somehow then win those other two home games they can be right back in the divisional race. That would be pretty remarkable.
20. Tennessee Titans (3-4, LW: 26)
The offense clearly looked better with Ryan Tannehill. It doesn’t mean he’s the long-term answer, but it’s hard to see the Titans turning back to Marcus Mariota anytime soon. Then the question becomes, what blueprint do the Titans have for the future at the position?
19. Detroit Lions (2-3-1, LW: 18)
The Lions rank 26th in the NFL in points allowed per game and 31st in yards allowed. They were ripped apart at home by the Vikings offense. With a huge opportunity in a seven-game stretch, the Lions went 0-2 against the Packers and Vikings (yes, the officials in Green Bay didn’t help). These are not great signs for Matt Patricia.
18. Jacksonville Jaguars (3-4, LW: 23)
Rookie pass rusher Josh Allen is paying off. He had another sack Sunday, his third straight game with a sack and his fifth in five games. It was a little surprising he slipped to the seventh pick of the draft, and the Jaguars have to be thrilled he did.
17. Oakland Raiders (3-3, LW: 16)
The Raiders have had some awful drafts. Trading cornerback Gareon Conley to Houston in midseason admits defeat on that 2017 first-round pick. Even when they did draft well recently, with Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper, the Raiders traded them away. The Raiders need this class, with its three first-round picks, to pay off big because that needs to be the foundation of a rebuild.
16. Philadelphia Eagles (3-4, LW: 13)
The Eagles have been sloppy all season and one could say unprepared as well. Doug Pederson goes under the microscope as he tries to get the Eagles back on track, and his failed win prediction might put even more pressure on him.
15. Chicago Bears (3-3, LW: 11)
The Bears’ loss to the Saints was bad. It’s just as troubling that their focus after the game seemed to be lashing out against negative comments by the media and on Twitter. You don’t see many good teams get that sensitive when people point out they looked terrible after a terrible game.
14. Houston Texans (4-3, LW: 8)
Receiver Will Fuller is going to miss some games with a hamstring injury. That’s really disappointing because injuries have been the story of Fuller’s career. He’s a very good talent who can’t stay on the field.
13. Carolina Panthers (4-2, LW: 10)
Kyle Allen will get another start. But it’s clear that while Allen has done a fine job in his role, the Panthers’ ceiling is much higher with Cam Newton. Maybe putting Newton back in the lineup will affect the chemistry that has developed in this four-game winning streak, but that’s a chance the Panthers need to take.
12. Los Angeles Rams (4-3, LW: 12)
I’m not sure beating up on the pathetic Falcons means the Rams are back. But it’s sure better than losing. One interesting wrinkle on Sunday was that the Rams ran much more two-tight end offense than in previous seasons with Sean McVay. They’ve been almost exclusively a three-receiver offense with McVay. We’ll see if that was a strategic choice for the Falcons, or if it’s a shift in how the Rams will play offense.
11. Dallas Cowboys (4-3, LW: 17)
There’s not much doubt anymore that this is the frontrunner in the NFC East. Things change but nobody aside from the Eagles will push them, and they were clearly the superior team on Sunday night. The Cowboys should head into their bye feeling very good.
10. Indianapolis Colts (4-2, LW: 15)
Jacoby Brissett has 14 touchdowns, three interceptions and a 101 passer rating. That passer rating ranks seventh among quarterbacks with at least 200 attempts. The Colts traded the Patriots receiver Phillip Dorsett for Brissett, and it’s looking like one of the steals of this century.
9. Seattle Seahawks (5-2, LW: 5)
Rashaad Penny played two snaps and had zero touches on Sunday. He’s buried behind Chris Carson. It was questionable that the Seahawks took a running back in the first round last year, and it’s looking like a waste now.
8. Baltimore Ravens (5-2, LW: 14)
On a fourth-and-2 in a tie game, the Ravens went for it. Lamar Jackson ran for an 8-yard touchdown. That came in the third quarter, and the Ravens never gave up the lead. That call says everything you need to know about the staff’s trust in Jackson and the offense.
7. Kansas City Chiefs (5-2, LW: 9)
There’s no real reason to rush Patrick Mahomes back. The rest of the AFC West is awful; nobody is going to challenge the Chiefs no matter who is playing quarterback. There’s no realistic chance the Chiefs get the No. 1 seed in the AFC anymore. The only thought now should be getting Mahomes healthy and figuring out how to peak in January.
6. Buffalo Bills (5-1, LW: 6)
Great stat by ESPN’s Field Yates: The only receivers to have at least 50 yards in every game this season are Michael Thomas of the Saints and Buffalo’s John Brown. Brown, who is the first Bills receiver since Lee Evans in 2008 to start the season with six straight 50-yard games, has been a fantastic pickup for the Bills.
5. Minnesota Vikings (5-2, LW: 7)
The Vikings gave up 30 points, including four touchdowns to Marvin Jones, and still won fairly comfortably. Now that we’ve seen the offense take off the past few weeks, this is a team with a championship upside. Because we pretty much know what we’re getting out of the defense.
4. Green Bay Packers (6-1, LW: 4)
Maybe it was just Aaron Rodgers picking on a substandard Raiders defense. But what if Sunday’s perfect game was the start of Rodgers getting on a roll in Matt LaFleur’s offense? Don’t forget that Davante Adams will be back at some point.
3. San Francisco 49ers (6-0, LW: 2)
I’d think the 49ers will be players around the trade deadline. There are at least a few receivers that could be available, and the 49ers could use one to get their passing game going.
2. New Orleans Saints (6-1, LW: 3)
Receivers can’t win the MVP award, but in an alternate universe in which it was possible, Michael Thomas would have a case. He has been a steady force all season for the Saints, no matter who has been quarterback. He is earning that big extension.
1. New England Patriots (7-0, LW: 1)
The Patriots’ secondary is really good. We could be watching a group that ends up in the same pantheon as some of the NFL’s most famous secondaries like the Broncos’ “No Fly Zone,” the Steelers’ “Steel Curtain,” the Seahawks’ “Legion of Boom” and a few others. They’re making life miserable on every quarterback they face.
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