CHICAGO — Malcolm Jenkins crept towards the line of scrimmage early Sunday, showing something they hadn’t through the first four games.
Jenkins sprinted towards the Bears’ Jay Cutler from his backside, leaping onto the quarterback and forcing a fumble that the safety’s teammate Cameron Jordan scooped up.
Behind a defense that allowed less than 20 points for the fifth consecutive game and an offense that was conservative but successful, the Saints won in Chicago 26-18, the first in Soldier Field since 2000.
“I thought defensively we did some things structurally to try and force and integrate some problems for their protections,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “I thought that happened and I was pleased with that.”
Drew Brees finished the game 29 of 35 for 288 yards and two touchdowns, tight end Jimmy Graham had 135 yards receiving and Pierre Thomas scored a rushing and receiving touchdown to pace the Saints, 5-0 for the fourth time in franchise history.
But for as much as this meant to New Orleans, the celebration period could be stymied with New England on the horizon.
“Oh yeah. I think guys will move on real quick,” Jenkins said. “We’ll recognize the challenge that we have ahead and meet the challenge.”
It nearly ended in a gut-wrenching manner for the Saints.
With no timeouts, Chicago (3-2) drove 82 yards in four plays to cut New Orleans’ lead to just one score.
Cutler hit Alshon Jeffery for a 58-yard gain after safety Kenny Vaccaro lost a step on the receiver while looking back for the ball. One play later, Cutler hit Brandon Marshall for a two-yard touchdown.
Matt Forte’s two-point conversion cut the Saints’ lead to 26-18 with 2:15 to play.
Benjamin Watson recovered the onside kick, however, and New Orleans ran the clock down to 21 seconds, pinning the Bears at their 20. Chicago managed only one snap before the clock ran out.
New Orleans owned a 12-minute advantage in time of possession and kept the Bears to just 4 of 10 on third downs. Still, Cutler did pass for 358 yards and Jeffery did finish with 218 yards, including the 58-yard catch that helped Chicago stay in the game.
Garrett Hartley’s first field goal, a 47-yarder, put the Saints up 3-0 early. The drive, New Orleans’ first of the day, showed just how bad the field conditions were. Running back Darren Sproles slipped twice on the drive, ending what could have been gains longer than they were.
On the first play of the Bears’ ensuing series, Jenkins blitzed from the left, flying in untouched to Cutler. He forced a fumble that end Cameron Jordan picked up and returned 11 yards to Chicago’s 6. The Saints took advantage of knowing Bears offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer early.
“You could say that,” Saints corner Jabari Greer said. “We’re familiar with Aaron and the style that he runs. It was great to see him and it was gratifying to get this win against him.”
But three plays netted one yard and New Orleans settled for a 19-yard Hartley field goal and a 6-0 lead.
The Saints offense, and mainly tight end Jimmy Graham, finally got going. He caught passes of 29 and 38 yards, the latter putting New Orleans in first-and-goal from the seven. Two plays later, Brees hit Pierre Thomas for a two-yard touchdown and a 13-0 lead.
Chicago answered, though, picking up 80 yards on a seven-play drive that was buoyed by a 31-yard pass from Cutler to Jeffery over Saints defensive back Chris Carr. Jeffery finished the drive with a three-yard touchdown to cut New Orleans’ lead to 13-7.
Still, with 2:36 to play in the first half, there was plenty of time for Brees to do what he does best. He led the Saints down the field to the Bears 27 only to face a fourth-and-one with 46 seconds to go. Pierre Thomas slipped through for two yards on the play, then caught a screen pass and darted 25-yards into the end zone to push New Orleans’ lead back to double figures.
At halftime, the Saints led 20-7.
New Orleans pushed the lead to 23-7 with a nearly seven-minute drive to open the second half.
Chicago’s Robbie Gould matched the field goal after the Saints were able to keep from breaking after a 42-yard pass completion to Jeffery put the Bears in prime position at New Orleans’ 16.