The New Orleans Saints finished the first half of the season with a 7-1 record. Here's a look at how they have fared and what's ahead:
First-half rewind: Is there a more battle-tested team in the NFL? New Orleans has won seven straight, including a brutal stretch over the past three weeks (at Baltimore, at Minnesota, vs. the previously undefeated Los Angeles Rams). They have proven they can win in a variety of ways, whether Drew Brees, 39, is still out there acting like Superman or whether they have to patiently survive a slugfest. Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas have been two of the NFL's best playmakers, and the offensive line is among the game's best. The pass defense remains a concern, but the Saints have shown gradual improvement in that department -- and they even stepped up with three game-changing takeaways to fuel the wins against the Vikings and Rams. Grade: Near-perfection
What's the biggest factor in the Saints making a deep playoff run? The secondary has to hold up. Although they've improved a bit in recent weeks and made a midseason trade for cornerback Eli Apple, the Saints still rank among the NFL's bottom four pass defenses in several categories -- including big plays allowed. No. 1 cornerback Marshon Lattimore is an asset, but quarterbacks have had too much success throwing away from him and picking on the No. 2 and 3 corners -- especially since veteran Patrick Robinson went on injured reserve in late September.
MVP: Not only is Brees the answer here, but he has a great chance to finally win the first NFL regular-season MVP award of his 18-year career if he can keep this up and hold off Kansas City's wunderkind quarterback, Patrick Mahomes, among others. Brees, who turns 40 in January, has the highest passer rating of his career (120.6) with 292 yards per game, 18 touchdown passes, just one interception and a ridiculous completion percentage of 76.3. Oh, and he became the NFL's all-time leader in passing yards in Week 5. Kamara and Thomas could make compelling cases, too, and both of them were huge contributors in the Week 9 win against the Rams (Kamara had his third three-TD game of the season, while Thomas had a franchise-record 211 yards and an unforgettable cellphone celebration). But Brees had a monster game himself, with four TD passes -- and sometimes Hall of Fame quarterbacks get extra credit.
Biggest surprise: The Saints have turned third-string quarterback Taysom Hill into a major part of their offense. Hill has played 17 offensive snaps per game over the past five games as a read-option QB/RB/TE/WR -- in addition to his duties as a kickoff returner and special-teams coverage specialist. He has completed a 44-yard pass, run for 133 yards and a touchdown, caught two passes for a total of 1 yard and successfully converted two fake punts (one throwing, one running). The physical and athletic 6-foot-2, 221-pounder has been a dream for innovative coach Sean Payton. Brees joked that Hill is "Sean's new toy."
Hurdle to overcome: Again, it's the pass defense. But to add another degree of difficulty, the Saints have to deal with the short-term absence of rookie edge rusher Marcus Davenport until he heals from a toe injury he suffered in Week 8. The Saints do have decent depth on their defensive line, and veteran Alex Okafor is a capable starter at right end. But they could use all the disruption they can get up front -- they didn't have a single sack against the Rams' Jared Goff while he threw for 391 yards. And Davenport was making a bigger impact by the week while playing about 50 percent of the defensive snaps, including two sacks on the night he got hurt.