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Defense wins championships, and Saints have playoff picture's best

Over their last four outings, New Orleans has allowed an average of just 13 points per game. That leads the group of teams likely to make this year's postseason.

The New Orleans Saints defense might be the best unit in the current NFC playoff picture. Seriously. To find out, we ran the numbers on the last four games for each of the six teams slated for postseason appearances right now, and the in-the-hunt Philadelphia Eagles. That smaller sample size gives a better indication of how teams are performing right now, but it’s useful to compare those numbers against season-long performance. All stats were pulled from Pro Football Reference. Here’s how the projected playoff teams stack up.

Points per game allowed

1. New Orleans Saints, 13 points per game

2. Minnesota Vikings, 16

3. Dallas Cowboys, 18

4. Chicago Bears, 20

5. Seattle Seahawks, 26

6. Philadelphia Eagles, 28

7. Los Angeles Rams, 36

Over their last four outings, New Orleans has allowed an average of just 13 points per game. That leads the group of teams likely to make this year’s postseason. Sure, the teams they’ve played have averaged 23 points scored per game on the year, but that’s not far from what almost every other team on this list has faced. Only the Rams have seen a slate of offenses scoring more than 26 points per game – and L.A. is one of two teams to allow more points than their opponents normally get. All that said to say: these rankings are not an indictment of the Saints’ strength of schedule.

Total yards per game allowed

1. New Orleans Saints, 289 yards per game

2-tied. Chicago Bears, 311

2-tied. Minnesota Vikings, 311

4. Dallas Cowboys, 321

5. Philadelphia Eagles, 398

6. Seattle Seahawks, 436

7. Los Angeles Rams, 439

This is another category in New Orleans’ favor. They are the only playoff hopeful to allow fewer than 300 total yards per game, and they’ve given up 150 yards less than the worst team (the Rams, again). That’s outrageous. Two popular picks for best-defense-in-football, the Bears and Vikings, are tied for second-best behind New Orleans. You have to imagine that the three worst teams in this stat, the Eagles, Seahawks, and Rams, can’t be happy at allowing around 400 yards per game despite squeaking out some wins.

Combined third/fourth down percentage

1. New Orleans Saints, 33-percent

2. Dallas Cowboys, 36-percent

3-tied. Los Angeles Rams, 39-percent

3-tied. Seattle Seahawks, 39-percent

5. Minnesota Vikings, 40-percent

6. Chicago Bears, 41-percent

7. Philadelphia Eagles, 43-percent

It turns out that the Saints are stronger on third down than they get credit for. An ugly performance against Dallas notwithstanding (they allowed 7 of 14 attempts to succeed), the Saints defense has been on a roll. Stellar execution on a big stage against New Orleans’ offense vaulted the Cowboys out of a tie with L.A. and Seattle. It’s surprising to see that Chicago is so vulnerable on critical downs, but they’ve only allowed a conversion rate lower than 40-percent once in their last four games (38-percent to the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving).

Takeaways per game

1. New Orleans Saints, 3 takeaways per game

2-tied. Dallas Cowboys, 2 takeaways

2-tied. Los Angeles Rams, 2 takeaways

2-tied. Minnesota Vikings, 2 takeaways

2-tied. Chicago Bears, 2 takeaways

6-tied. Seattle Seahawks, 1 takeaway

6-tied. Philadelphia Eagles, 1 takeaway

The Saints lead these teams in the most single-game turnovers over the last month or so (bagging four takeaways against the Atlanta Falcons two weeks ago) but they’re also averaging the most, and haven’t created fewer than two turnovers per game in the sampled span. Seattle is ranked low and would have been lower if not for a three-turnover bonanza against the San Francisco 49ers’ third-string quarterback. The Cowboys and Vikings also have just one multiple-takeaway game each in the last four weeks.

Sacks per game

1. New Orleans Saints, 5 sacks per game

2. Minnesota Vikings, 4 sacks

3-tied. Dallas Cowboys, 3 sacks

3-tied. Los Angeles Rams, 3 sacks

3-tied. Chicago Bears, 3 sacks

3-tied. Seattle Seahawks, 3 sacks

7. Philadelphia Eagles, 2 sacks

Read that again. All year, ever since the Saints traded up for defensive end Marcus Davenport, everyone has talked about New Orleans’ bad pass rush. It’s needed to get better; All-Pro end Cameron Jordan needed help; defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins needed to step up; you’ve seen all the other tropes. But now we’re in December and the Saints have collected 20 sacks in their last four games, and 13 in their last two outings. Don’t let that Vikings number fool you – it’s inflated by an insane 10-sack game against the Detroit Lions four weeks ago. They were shut out against the New England Patriots and sacked Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky just once. The Cowboys and Bears pass rushers are consistently productive, but the normally-great Rams were blanked by the Saints a month ago.

We’ll see if this trend continues through the final weeks of the regular season and into the playoffs, but it’s very encouraging to see the Saints defense finally playing so well. It’s very off-brand for New Orleans, but it’s starting to look like their offense is the unit in need of greater consistency.

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