Saints are set up for a playoff push despite a middling first 9 weeks

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The New Orleans Saints have epitomized middling football during the first half of this season — one game above .500 but winless against teams with winning records.

The arrival of veteran quarterback Derek Carr in free agency has not yet had a dramatic effect on an offense that sometimes looks explosive but also has been weighed down by intermittent stagnation on third downs or in the red zone.

The Saints have done enough, however, to sit alone atop the NFC South. Meanwhile, a favorable upcoming schedule — including four games in their own anemic division — gives New Orleans (5-4) an opportunity to make a playoff push.

“We've learned from our own mistakes,” offensive lineman James Hurst said Monday. "On offense, particularly early in the year, we beat ourselves with penalties, with some turnovers, miscommunications or missed assignments, and we've seen that kind of trend in the right direction.

“And I think we have seen on both sides of the ball, what we can be — the points we can score and the type of defense that we can play,” Hurst added.

There are moments when the Saints look good enough to compete with the NFL's elite, whether it's Carr hitting speedy receiver Rashid Shaheed deep downfield, as he did twice in Week 8, or Taysom Hill producing touchdowns in every way possible or third-year defensive back Paulson Adebo causing turnovers.

Their most recent victory over struggling Chicago (2-7) was a case in point. Hill passed for one TD and caught a scoring pass. The Saints forced five turnovers — three caused by Adebo — without committing one themselves. And they were penalized only once for 5 yards. Yet they had to hold on for a 24-17 victory.

“At the end of the day, we won,” Carr said, emphasizing the bottom line. “This is professional football.”

Indeed, plenty of other NFL teams — including every other team in the NFC South — would like to be in New Orleans' shoes. The Saints are in prime position to end a two-year playoff absence.

“We've done a lot of really good things,” said coach Dennis Allen, now in his second season since being promoted from defensive coordinator following Sean Payton's decision to briefly retire.

“There's a lot of things we have to improve on,” Allen continued. “Ultimately, we're sitting here in control of all of it.”

WHAT’S WORKING

The Saints' play-making defense has ranked in the top 10 in the NFL all season. Heading into Monday night's action, New Orleans ranked seventh in yards allowed, led the NFL in interceptions with 12 and was tied for the league lead in total takeaways with 18. In the past five games, the Saints have been particularly good at limiting opponents' scoring in the second halves of games. From Weeks 5 through 9, the Saints' defense allowed just 20 second-half points.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

The Saints have improved in the red zone during consecutive victories in the past two weeks but for most of the season have struggled to convert possessions inside an opponents' 20-yard line into touchdowns. New Orleans has a 45.5% conversion rate in the red zone, which ranks 28th in the NFL.

STOCK UP

Adebo, a third-year cornerback out of Stanford, has come back strong from an injury-shortened second season to become the star of New Orleans' seventh-ranked defense. His four interceptions, 11 passes defensed, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries lead the team in all of those categories and are all career highs for a season — with eight games still to play.

STOCK DOWN

Running back Jamaal Williams and left tackle Trevor Penning. Williams led the NFL in touchdowns rushing last season with 17 for Detroit. The Saints signed him in free agency with the intent of adding a proven power rusher to a backfield led by the versatile and elusive Alvin Kamara. Because of a hamstring injury, Williams has missed four games. In the five games he's played, he has 41 carries for 124 yards without a TD. Penning was a 2022 first-round draft choice who was expected to start this season. Initially, he did, but his pass protection struggles became enough of a liability that coaches have benched him and replaced him with guard Andrus Peat while bringing in Hurst to start in Peat's previous spot.

INJURIES

Defensive end Payton Turner, a 2021 first-round draft choice, has missed all but the first game of his third season. He currently is on injured reserve with a foot injury. Fullback Adam Prentice has been on IR since mid-October with a knee injury. The Saints have played all season without guard Trai Turner, who had a quadriceps tear in training camp. Now rookie defensive end Isaiah Foskey, a second-round pick out of Notre Dame, has a thigh injury.

KEY NUMBER

2 — The number of teams left on New Orleans' schedule that currently have winning records (Minnesota and Detroit).

NEXT STEPS

The Saints visit another 5-4 team when they play in Minnesota this Sunday. After that, they have a Week 11 bye, followed by seven games during which they play six against teams that currently have losing records.

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AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/NFL