Don't look now, but here come the New Orleans Saints.
Rocked by the offseason revelation of a bounty scandal that deprived them of their coach for the entire season and their general manager for eight games, the Saints have managed an improbable mid-season turnaround that has them alive and fighting for an NFC wild card spot. After starting the season with four consecutive losses, New Orleans has won four of its past five games, including an impressive 31-27 victory over the previously undefeated Atlanta Falcons.
"We're chugging along," quarterback Drew Brees said after Sunday's win over the Falcons. "I don't think we've played our best football. That's still to come. When you start 0-4 and now you're a game away from .500, that's an impressive comeback."
Winners of the NFC South in two of the past three seasons, and Super Bowl champions three years ago, the Saints were a question mark at the start of the season. New Orleans would be without its respected head coach, Sean Payton, for the entire year. Assistant coach Joe Vitt and general manager Mickey Loomis were also suspended for for six and eight games, respectively.
Making matters worse, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams left after the 2011 season and stalwarts Will Smith and Jonathan Vilma were each slapped with suspensions, throwing the Saints defense into disarray.
The defense struggled mightily in New Orleans' first four games, giving up at least 27 points each game. While the Saints lost those four contests, Brees and the Saints' prolific offense kept the team alive in the fourth quarter each time. New Orleans' losses to the Washington Redskins, Carolina Panthers, Kansas City Chiefs and Green Bay Packers each came by one score or less.
Even though the Saints' defense has been performing at a historically poor level -- New Orleans is last in the league in yards allowed (469.3 yards-per-game) and fourth worst in points-allowed (28.4) -- the offense has stepped up big time. As has become the norm, Brees leads the league in passing yards (2,847) and touchdowns (25) through ten weeks. Against the Falcons, the Saints got a boost from their running game, as Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and Chris Ivory combined for 148 yards.
"That's great balance," Brees said. "That's when you're really rolling as an offense."
And just when they needed it most, the Saints have Vilma back as he appeals his suspension. After initially being banned for the entire season, Vilma is allowed to play as the NFL considers his appeal. Vilma, who played in his fourth game of the year on Sunday, is still shaking off the rust from his suspension as well as offseason knee surgery.
While some people assumed he'd be benched for all 16 games, Vilma told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that he always figured he'd be back at some point this season.
"A lot of people didn't think that way, but I did," Vilma said. "Never a doubt."
The bounty scandal is far from finished, and it won't be in the rear-view mirror for quite some time. Vilma's appeal is still pending, and Payton will become a free agent after the season. But as the scandal settles, the Saints now have something to play for.
"[NFL commissioner Roger Goodell] stepped too far," Vilma said. "I can live with that for now because I still have the defamation suit, the suspension thing is still pending. He had to recuse himself. So that will all take care of itself later on. But right now, it's really all about football."