The Saints are No. 1 in the league at points per game (37.2), ahead of the No. 2 Chiefs (36.7) and No. 3 Rams (35.4). The Saints are No. 2 to the Rams in turnover ratio (+11 to +8) and No. 1 in the league in time of possession (33.1). So we know those three teams can score, but today’s point writ large is this: when considering which team has the best shot at winning the Super Bowl, the Saints have a distinct edge. And that is because of a suddenly cohesive and healthy defense. The Saints aren’t the only team that can score a fistful of points, but when you look at the other Super Bowl contenders, defense sets the Who Dats apart.
Understandably, none of the three offensive juggernauts rank in the top half of the league in defensive statistics. Too many big leads allow too much trash scoring in the fourth quarter after the starters are done for the day. But certain defensive statistics are significant when comparing the Saints with the Rams and Chiefs. For example, how many times has a big penalty in a tight game hurt your favorite team? Ask LSU’s faithful after that landslide of questionable calls in the Texas A&M snakepit. The good news for this conversation is that Saints are one of the least-penalized defenses in the league, having been flagged 55 times for 513 yards. Conversely, the Rams have heard the Law & Order theme 67 times for 609 yards while the felonious Chiefs have committed 74 penalties for 603 yards.
The Saints rushing defense ranks No. 1 in the league at 73 yards per game, a healthy improvement from the 111.7 yards per game of last season. If an opponent can't run effectively and must pass, that's music to the defensive ears, even if it's LA's Jerad Goff or KC's Patrick Mahomes. No opposing running back has rushed for more than the 69 yards Tampa’s Peyton Barber gained in the opening day loss. Even NFL rushing leader Todd Gurley managed only 68 in the Saints’ 45-35 win over the Rams in Week 9.
Overall, the Saints defense has allowed 358.9 yards per game (15th in the NFL), ahead of the Rams 372.5 (20th) and the Chiefs at 414.7 (30th). More importantly, the Saints have allowed 23.3 points per game (14th), ahead of the Rams’ 25.6 (20th) and the Chiefs’ 26.7 (27th). That reveals the best indicator of combined offensive and defensive contributions to victory: The Saints have the No. 1 point differential in the league at 13.9, a field goal ahead of the Chiefs at 10 and the Rams at 9.8.
Complementing the statistical superiority of the Saints have been the intangibles that win games. Evidence Thanksgiving Day against the Falcons when an opportunistic Saints defense stopped three Atlanta drives with takeaways in the red zone.
We have a long way to go, but if the current standings hold up, the Saints will face the Rams in the NFC championship and then the Chiefs in the Super Bowl. Looking at the stats, the offenses will continue to light it up, but the Saints’ defense will make the difference on whether or not a second Super Bowl title comes to New Orleans.
Jim Miller's new book, "Integrated: the Lincoln Institute, Basketball and a Vanished Tradition" is now available from the University Press of Kentucky or at Amazon.com.