On Monday night, we wrapped up Week 15 in the NFL as the New Orleans Saints proved they still had plenty of fight in them by taking care of business in a must-win game to keep their playoff hopes within reach. The Saints went up to Soldier Field and defeated the Chicago Bears, 31-15, to move into sole possession of first place the NFC South.
The Saints’ victory puts them in the playoff picture as the No. 4 seed and in line to host a first-round playoff game, so long as the team can take care of its business again each of the next two weeks. For Chicago, the focus shifts to what personnel and coaching changes need to occur in order to right the ship for the once-promising Bears.
Here are five takeaways from the Saints’ win against the Bears:
1. Saints control their own destiny
Drew Brees threw for a league-high 375 yards and three touchdowns this week to lift New Orleans over Chicago in essentially a must-win game in primetime Monday night. Interestingly enough, both teams entered this Week 15 showdown with 5-8 records and being viewed as two of the most disappointing teams this season.
The Saints, again, showed glimpses of why they garnered so much preseason hype in this one, earning the victory to elevate them to 6-8 and into first place in the muddled NFC South. Behind them in the standings is Carolina at 5-8-1 and Atlanta at 5-9.
Next week the Saints host the Falcons. With a win, New Orleans can eliminate the Falcons from NFC South contention. Meanwhile, the Panthers will play host to Tampa Bay, but as long that the Saints win out they’ll be in the playoffs with an 8-8 record.
2. The blame game: is it Cutler or the coaches?
Bears offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer said this week the team should have “buyer’s remorse” after dishing out a seven-year, $126.7 million deal to quarterback Jay Cutler in the offseason.
Well, the team might have buyer’s remorse about both the coordinator and the quarterback, since the team mustered 278 yards of total offense and Cutler managed 194 of them passing, with two touchdowns and three interceptions. Yes, with those three picks Cutler regained the league lead in that category from rookie Blake Bortles.
After the game, Bears coach Marc Trestman said, “We are all working together and not getting it done.” Ain’t that the truth.
Because of Cutler’s bloated salary, the team could be stuck with him for another two seasons, unless they can find another quarterback-less team desperate enough to make a trade for him. Then the attention turns to both coordinators, Kromer and Mel Tucker, both of whom have be on their way out of the Windy City. But will Trestman follow, too? His Josh McCown-quarterbacked team was superior to this 2014 version, which has been embarrassed on a national stage numerous times this year.
3. Road warriors strike again
You’d almost never think this was possible, but the Saints have played better football away from the Superdome than they have in their home stadium all year long.
New Orleans’ best home win of the year came back in Oct. 26 when they nearly doubled up Aaron Rodgers‘ Packers. But prior to that, the Saints narrowly beat Minnesota and needed overtime to get past the Buccaneers.
Since that win over Green Bay, New Orleans is 0-4 at home. Conversely, the team has won three in a row on the road, against the likes of Carolina, Pittsburgh, and now Chicago.
4. Bears poised to for top-10 pick
Chicago hasn’t drafted in the top 10 of the NFL draft since 2005, when the team selected Cedric Benson out of Texas.
With the loss dropping the team to 5-9, the Bears are poised to select No. 9 overall in this spring’s 2015 NFL draft, which coincidentally, will be held in the Windy City.
At first glance, this Bears team has a lot of holes it needs to fill in order to return to contention in 2015. Of course, any potential coaching changes will be a major factor in which direction the team goes in. With a top-10 pick, the Bears can find a difference-maker for their front seven, perhaps a replacement for Lance Briggs, who is expected to leave via free agency. Or maybe they’ll continue to address their secondary, which lacks back-end help.
You also have to consider the team exploring its options at quarterback. The Bears did draft David Fales, who’s sitting behind Jimmy Clausen on the depth chart. That’s a Trestman pick, and perhaps another regime would want to rebuild around a new face under center.
5. New Orleans D thrives with changes
One of the reasons why there was so much hype surrounding the Saints entering this season was the work Rob Ryan did in 2013 in his first year at the helm of the defense. The organization went out and landed the top free-agent safety, Jairus Byrd, who promptly disappointed and wound up on the season-ending injured reserve, but that only begins the discussion of why this unit has been so unfulfilling.
Ryan has made some significant changes these past few weeks to the defense that ranked 31st in the NFL and giving up almost 400 yards per game entering Week 15, including benching former first-round pick Kenny Vaccaro. In fact, three new players earned starts in the Saints’ secondary: Terrence Frederick, Jamarca Sanford and Pierre Warren.
Warren, a rookie who didn’t make the roster out of training camp but settled for a spot on the practice squad, notched the first two interceptions of his career Monday night, while Sanford and Frederick — who started in place of Corey White and Vaccaro — played lights out. Vaccaro still had a major role, though, moving back to a hybrid sort of role.
This cast of characters helped the Saints notch their third-best defensive effort in terms of total yards allowed. It just goes to show you that sometimes motivated role players can play better than the big-name superstars, or at least motivate those stars to play up to their reputation.