The Saints are humming on offense and have won five consecutive games, and during the last four victories have averaged 33 points (they averaged a modest 21 points in their first eight games).
The Saints (9-3) are 9-points favorites over St. Louis (6-6) on Sunday at 3:05 p.m. in the Superdome. But the Saints had to huff and puff to win their last two games.
"We're running the ball a little bit more effectively than earlier in the season and that's been a point of emphasis for us," said Saints coach Sean Payton. "That's helped us."
Actually, the Saints have run a lot more effectively. Through eight games, the Saints averaged 84.8 yards per game and 3.6 yards per carry on the ground. Over the last four games? Try 126 yards per game and 4.8 yards a carry.
This has happened even though Pierre Thomas has been sidelined since suffering an ankle injury in Game 3. He is expected to play on Sunday. Reggie Bush has returned and will begin getting more snaps.
The player who has rescued the Saints' running game is unheralded Chris Ivory, an undrafted rookie. When it was mentioned during an interview with Drew Brees that not many persons had heard of Ivory, Brees quipped: "I hadn't either."
Saints opponents are learning about him the hard way. Ivory has rushed for 636 yards and is averaging a robust 5.2 yards per carry. He is coming off a 117-yard, two-touchdown outing against the Bengals.
"He's doing great," said Brees. "Just a guy, and we have a lot of these guys, the undefeated free agents that just -- you never know what you have until then all of a sudden you realize, 'Man, we might have something special here.'"
The 34-30 victory at Cincinnati was vintage Brees. He completed 24-of-29 passes for 313 yards and two TDs. He also reached 25 TD passes for the season.
"He's got a real high standard and he's very competitive," judged Payton. "Each offseason for him is always about improvement and what he can do better. One of his great strengths is always staying hungry and trying to evaluate how he can be a more efficient and better player. That's a big reason he's had the success he's had to date."
Brees and Ivory are up for the league's weekly awards after the win on Sunday.
Brees has been nominated for the FedEx Air Player of the Week award, and Ivory has been nominated for Pepsi Rookie of the Week honors. Brees had a season-high 120.3 passer rating.
Rams cornerback Ron Bartell and safety O.J. Atogwe did not practice on Wednesday while nursing injuries. Two other members of the secondary, cornerback Justin King and safety Craig Dahl were limited with shoulder and knee woes. Another cornerback, rookie Jerome Murphy was limited with a hamstring injury.
Payton has made it a point to put pressure on defenses with his receivers moving to different positions they haven't used before. Brees will throw to 8-15 different receivers.
Even with the recent winning streak and improved offensive play, winning isn't always coming easy for the Saints. Five of their nine victories have been by five points or fewer, and Brees has four fourth-quarter comebacks, including last-second victories over Dallas and Cincinnati.
The victories keep coming for the Saints, but nothing is coming easy in New Orleans this season. Trailing Atlanta by a game in the NFC standings, the Saints can't afford to coast to the finish like they did last season. Atlanta has two games with bottom-feeder Carolina (1-11).
"As we come down the stretch, typically you might face a team in the month of December that has nothing to play for," said Brees. "They're out of the playoffs -- that kind of thing.
"But our situation right now, here we are playing the Rams who are right there in front and at the top with the opportunity to win the NFC West. Then we play the Ravens next week who are fighting for their division and a playoff spot. Then we play Atlanta and Tampa Bay, which are the two teams in our division that are right there at the top as well fighting for the playoffs.
"Nobody said repeating was easy."
Though the Saints' offense is getting the credit, on the season, the unappreciated defense is allowing just 18.5 points and 307 yards per game. Both rank in the the top 10 in the NFL.
Can the Rams win their third straight road game on Sunday? Don't count on it. As good as the Rams have been the last two weekends, their wins were over Denver and Arizona, a pair of teams that are a combined 6-18. As good as Sam Bradford is, they haven't seen a defense as good as the Saints' in a long time.
Prediction: Take the Saints to cover the 9.
Other fearless weekend NFL selections: Raiders +4 1/2 over Jaguars; Steelers -9 over Bengals; Patriots -3 over Bears; Bills -1 1/2 over Browns; Giants -2 over Vikings; Packers -6 1/2 over Lions; Falcons -7 over Panthers; Bucs -2 over Redskins; Seahawks +4 1/2 over 49ers (best bet); Fins +5 1/1 over Jets; Broncos - 4 1/2 over Cardinals; Chargers -6 1/1 over Chiefs (lock); Cowboys +3 1/2 over Eagles; and Ravens -3 over Texans.
College: Navy-7 over Army.
SHOCKER: Nasty weather could be a factor in the Bills' game with the Browns on Sunday...Randy Moss was listed as a starter for the Titans before their game, but didn't get into the lineup until five minutes before the half. He caught zero passes and was targeted zero times. Afterward, he refused to talk to the media which could cost him another $15,000 fine...Firmer Steelers coach Bill Cower said he 's ready to listen to "opportunities." Now, a CBS analyst, Cower could be a good fit with the Giants if they don't make it to the playoffs. The Panthers job would be a good fit, but Carolina owner Jerry Richardson isn't willing to pay enough money to land Cower...
by Ed Staton
Buy your LSU and Saints jerseys at LouisianaSportsTalk.com
Bayoubuzz Newsletter - Sign Up Below