METAIRIE, La. — The first time Sean Payton and Drew Brees went to Chicago with the Saints, they left a cold, miserable day with a minus-four turnover differential and a season-ending 39-14 loss to the Bears.
One year later, they lost by eight points, but kept the turnover differential even.
And in 2008, the last time New Orleans played the Bears at Soldier Field, the Saints lost 27-24 in spite of being plus-one.
In other words, Payton knows just how much not turning the ball over means, especially when playing a defense annually ranked among the best in doing so.
That’s a message he has delivered for much of this past week as the Saints (4-0) prepare for Sunday’s noon game at Chicago.
“Time and time again, that is the number one stat in football and really if you look at the difference in the turnovers, that is going to lead you to the winner or loser of any given game,” receiver Marques Colston said.
Chicago (3-1) leads the NFL in 2013 with 14 takeaways, including eight fumble recoveries. The Bears have produced at least three takeaways in every game this season and finished with five in a win over Pittsburgh. They’ve scored three of the team’s 15 touchdowns on returns this season.
Since 2006, in fact, the Bears have forced fewer than 31 turnovers just once and have ended the season in the top five in taking the ball away six times.
“It’s something that doesn’t happen by accident,” Payton said. “To have the numbers that they have is something that is obviously emphasized and worked on.”
New Orleans has remained one of five undefeated teams by heeding Payton’s directive to not give the ball away easily. Only four teams have turned it over fewer than the Saints’ five this season and because of an opportunistic defense that has taken the ball away 10 times, New Orleans ranks among the league’s best in differential this year at plus-five.
And those turnovers have turned into points. Of the 10 takeaways, four have resulted in touchdowns and another in a field goal. One ended in a Saints turnover and one in a punt. The other three ended games, allowing quarterback Drew Brees to kneel the ball down.
That’s an advantage the Saints’ defense understands it has with Brees at quarterback.
“Every turnover you get, you give him one more possession and that’s one more opportunity to score and that separates games with him,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “The more and more we can get him the football, the chances we are we’re going to win that game.”
Nevertheless, Sunday will be more about the Saints taking care of the ball.
Defensive back Charles Tillman is among the league’s best in getting the ball out, forcing 10 fumbles in 2012 alone. This season, three players – linebacker Lance Briggs and defensive backs Major Wright and Tim Jennings – have each forced two fumbles. Tillman and Wright, meanwhile, have two interceptions apiece.
“You can tell just by watching film that it is a point of emphasis for them,” Colston said. “They fly around and they get population around the football. It is just going to be one of those games where it is going to be a point of emphasis.”