x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Saints aim to build on a strong start

Long before this current season began, the New Orleans started wearing T-shirts designed by head coach Sean Payton that were meant not only to express hope for the future but also to remind his players of the failings of their recent past.

Long before this current season began, the New Orleans started wearing T-shirts designed by head coach Sean Payton that were meant not only to express hope for the future but also to remind his players of the failings of their recent past. So far the T-shirts, and his players, have worked miracles. After destroying the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, 48-22, the Saints have gone marching to the top of the NFC South with a 2-0 record with an offense that is averaging 46.5 points and 515 total yards per game. They have done precisely what those T-shirts, with the word "FINISH'' and the Super Bowl XLIV logo on them demanded. They have finished off games and the first two teams they have faced.

"Losing the way we did last season, we felt like we had to come up with something pertinent to our team," linebacker Jonathan Vilma said. "We definitely have to finish games." So far they certainly have and that's been without yet getting much production from limping former No 1 draft choice Reggie Bush. With him or without him nothing has slowed down the Saints' offence, which has taken pressure off a defence that has yet to prove itself up to a champion's task but yet might be.

"We believe every time we touch the ball we're going to go and get points," said the Saints' quarterback Drew Brees after throwing for 311 yards and three touchdowns. That leaves Brees with nine TD passes in two weeks, a pace that would set an NFL record 72 if he keeps it up. That's unlikely but what is likely is the Saints are for real. Three years ago they rode the emotional crest of a disastrous Hurricane Katrina, which left much of New Orleans under water, all the way to the NFC championship game. Buoyed by the support of a city filled with people looking for hope and an escape from life's daily hardships, the Saints surprisingly came within one win of reaching the Super Bowl.

Much was predicted for them after that but they have gone a disappointing 15-17 the last two seasons and were 0-5 in games decided by three points or fewer in 2008 when they finished 8-8. It seemed that all the promise of 2006 would prove to be empty but Brees never believed that. "We see the window of opportunity we have here," Brees said. "The confidence is there." So is the talent, beginning but not ending with Brees. He's surrounded by a solid running game with Pierre Thomas and Mike Bell providing the heavy lifting and Bush the dash. Few people remember Bell, who rushed for nearly 700 yards for the Denver Broncos four years ago before injuries limited him to nine games the next two seasons. Fewer know much about Thomas but when healthy they are a slashing balance to Brees' passing.

Although Brees has no widely known receivers, explosive Marques Colston and tight end Jeremy Shockey provide him the weaponry he needs and he takes care of the rest. "We have very high expectations for ourselves,'' Brees went on to add. "I think we can get better." If they do it will be difficult for their season to end anywhere but in Miami at Super Bowl XLIV but there remain a lot of games before that.

"All we've done is win a couple games,'' said safety Darren Sharper. "What we want is to have the mentality that if we have a team down we stomp on their throats and don't let them comeback." To accomplish that the defence will have to improve on the 463 yards it allowed the Eagles but if they can keep forcing turnovers, which they did three times in Philadelphia, they know what will come next. Points and another beaten opponent.

rborges@thenational.ae