The New Orleans Saints are on the verge of clinching a playoff berth despite an uncharacteristically low rate of success in converting third downs.
The Saints converted just 3 of 10 third downs in a 31-19 victory over the New York Jets on Sunday, which left them 10-4 and one win from clinching a playoff berth. They host Atlanta on Sunday.
New Orleans ranks in the middle of the pack in third-down conversions (37.9 percent) after leading the NFL last season (45 percent) and ranking among the league leaders since head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees arrived in 2006.
"We're certainly not pleased with where our third-down numbers have been this year," Brees said. "When you can still score 31 points and you're at 30 percent, that just tells us where we can be if we're at 50 percent."
The Saints, who are 11 of 13 on fourth-down conversions, did convert their only fourth-down attempt against the Jets and it set up the game's first touchdown.
"If you count that, then that is 40 percent and if you get one more, then that is 50 percent," Brees said. "You're so close to the number that you want."
New Orleans and Atlanta meet just 17 days after the Falcons beat the Saints 20-17 in the first meeting to tighten the three-way race for the NFC South title and wild-card berth.
Atlanta was 8-5 going into its game at Tampa Bay on Monday night and Carolina is tied with New Orleans, though the Saints own the head-to-head tiebreaker.
Penalties were a problem for the Saints for a second consecutive game. Against the Falcons, they were penalized 11 times for 87 yards, and nine of the Falcons' 26 first downs came by penalty. Against the Jets, the Saints were penalized eight times for 92 yards. Back-to-back offside and defensive pass interference penalties on third down kept alive a New York touchdown drive.
"It's just a matter of cleaning up some of our technique," head coach Sean Payton said."
OFFENSIVE LINE QUESTIONS
The makeup of the offensive line is again uncertain because of injuries. Senio Kelemete started at left guard because Andrus Peat has a groin injury and was limited to a few snaps as a third tight end. Right guard Larry Warford suffered a concussion during the game and was replaced by Josh LeRibeus. New Orleans hopes to at least have Peat back this week, but the line will be worth monitoring throughout the week.
The Saints have had to make changes at every line position except center because of injuries.
RB Mark Ingram II went over 1,000 rushing yards for the second consecutive season when he rushed for 74 yards against the Jets. That gave him 1,045 yards for the season. Ingram, in his seventh season, has career highs in touchdowns (11) and yards from scrimmage (1,420).
WR Brandon Coleman had never lost a fumble in an NFL game before Sunday, but twice against the Jets he lost a fumble while New Orleans was in scoring position. He lost possession at the New York 17 and New York 15. "That's not in my DNA to fumble the ball," Coleman told NOLA.com. "I'm not going to hold my head down. I know it's not a part of my game, so just keep doing what I'm doing."
REPORT CARD VS. JETS
PASSING OFFENSE: B
QB Drew Brees overcame a mostly stagnant running game by passing for 285 yards and two touchdowns. He completed 26 of 36 and connected with Alvin Kamara from 19 yards for one score and with Michael Thomas from 4 yards for the other score. The passing game's performance was marred by all three of New Orleans' turnovers -- Coleman's two fumbles and a Brees pass that was tipped and intercepted, setting up a Jets field goal.
RUSHING OFFENSE: C-plus
The Saints got rookie Alvin Kamara back from a concussion, but he and Ingram were mostly held in check by New York. As the Saints were trying to run out the clock in the final two minutes, Ingram broke free for a 50-yard touchdown run. Otherwise, the Saints averaged 3.0 yards on 27 rushes. The injuries at guard no doubt contributed to the struggles.
PASS DEFENSE: A
The Saints took advantage of the absence of injured Jets starting QB Josh McCown, who was replaced by Bryce Petty. It was the first start this season and fifth for Petty in his three-year career. Petty completed 19 of 39 for 179 yards and one touchdown. The Saints intercepted him twice -- once by LB Craig Robertson, on a ball batted by cornerback Ken Crawley, and once by CB Marshon Lattimore on the game's final play.
RUSH DEFENSE: A-minus
The Saints held the Jets to 124 rushing yards and an average of 4.4 per carry. New York's leading rusher was Bilal Powell with 44 yards on 13 carries. The Jets hoped steady rushing success would make things easier for Petty in the passing game, but New Orleans never allowed that to happen.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A-minus
The special teams didn't feature any big plays -- good or bad. Wil Lutz made his only field-goal attempt (from 23 yards) and all four of his extra points. P Thomas Morstead averaged 46.8 yards on four punts, placing one inside the 20. The Jets' longest gain on five kickoff returns was 24 yards and their only punt return netted zero yards. The Saints averaged 17.5 yards on two kickoff returns and Tommylee Lewis averaged 7.2 yards on five punt returns.
Even with extra time to prepare after playing on Thursday, the Saints weren't sharp, committing three turnovers and being penalized eight times. Payton went for a fourth-and-2 early and the Saints converted, leading to a touchdown. The bottom line, though, is New Orleans led wire to wire in a game it had to win to maintain its playoff position.
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