Inside Slant

The Sports Xchange

December 20, 2018 at 1:01 pm.

Saints want rhythm back on offense

If the New Orleans Saints defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, they will have accomplished all that they can in the regular season with one week left to play.

They already have won the NFC South championship and a win in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday would make them 13-2 and guarantee them the No. 1 seed in the NFC, which means a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.

That would mean their regular-season finale at home against Carolina a week later would have no effect on their post-season prospects, except to allow them to rest key players for the playoffs, knowing that the game’s outcome won’t change anything other than their final record.

It’s a significant opportunity and one that New Orleans has been building toward by winning 12 of 13 games since a season-opening 48-40 home loss to Tampa Bay.

“I think our focus right now is this game in front of us and playing our best football game this weekend,” head coach Sean Payton said Wednesday. “Certainly, as you go through the course of the season, you talk about winning the division and then you talk about improving your seeding. I think everyone’s aware of how that all works but the focus is doing what we can to win this week.”

The Saints are hoping to maintain the level of defensive play that has enabled them to lead the NFL in scoring defense since Week 4 while breaking out of an offensive slump that has now reached three games.

New Orleans hasn’t allowed more than 17 points in any of its last six games. But after averaging more than 37 points during the first 11 games it has averaged 16.7 in the last three.

The offensive slide began with a 13-10 loss at Dallas three weeks ago. Two weeks ago the Saints trailed 14-3 at Tampa Bay at halftime, then seemed to get back on track offensively by outscoring the Buccaneers 25-0 in the second half. They edged Carolina 12-9 on Monday night.

New Orleans did not score a first-half touchdown in any of those games.

“Obviously, you’re constantly looking at what are the things you can do to score, how you can improve,” Payton said. “I think this past week we shot ourselves in the foot quite a bit. On the road at Dallas, that’s a good defense and we felt it was going to be a low-scoring game. At Tampa the same way.

“So there’s some things that we feel like we can clean up and there’s some things I know from my standpoint and us as coaches that we can improve on and we’ll work to do that.”

Quarterback Drew Brees said the offense has been lacking the “tempo” and “rhythm” that is characteristic of it when the Saints are rolling.

“When we’re clicking on all cylinders, we are running the football effectively, we are good in the short to intermediate passing game, which opens up the shots down the field,” Brees said. “We possess the ball and we convert first downs and those results lead to points, which is good and also plays a more complementary brand of football with our defense.”

SERIES HISTORY: 16th regular-season meeting. Saints lead series, 8-7, including a 5-4 record in New Orleans and a 3-2 record in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. New Orleans won both meetings in 1968 when both teams were in the Century Division, but they have played sparingly since moving into different conferences as part of the AFL-NFL merger. The Saints do have two significant victories though. In 1984, the Saints won, 27-24, in the Superdome for their first-ever victory on Monday Night Football after six losses. In 1987, the Saints prevailed, 20-16, in Three Rivers Stadium to clinch the first winning season in franchise history.