(Reuters) - If any team can stop the unbeaten Green Bay Packers from going all the way this season it could well be the New Orleans Saints, who are starting to look like the team that won a Super Bowl two years ago.
The NFC South-leading Saints (9-3) and NFC West-leading San Francisco 49ers (10-2) are two obvious threats that could deny the Packers a second consecutive trip to the National Football League’s championship game.
While the 49ers have been something of a surprise package this season under first-year coach Jim Harbaugh and lack playoff experience, the Saints have a very familiar look.
Crucially for the Saints, the key partnership between head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees remains intact with the signal caller in record-breaking form.
Brees passed for 342 yards and three touchdowns in Sunday’s win over the Detroit Lions and became the first quarterback with over 4,000 passing yards in the opening 12 games of a season, putting him on course to beat Dan Marino’s season record of 5,084 yards with four game still to play.
Some more numbers that indicate the Saints are a team Aaron Rodgers and the Packers should be concerned about meeting in the post-season?
In the past two games the Saints have outscored fellow playoff contenders Detroit and the New York Giants by a combined 80-41 margin while putting up 1,015 total yards of offence.
“We feel like this is the time for you to be playing your best football and here we are having won four in a row and hopefully we can keep that streak going,” said Brees.
The four opponents dispatched in that run also include divisional rivals Tampa Bay (4-8) and the Atlanta Falcons (7-5).
Saints linebacker Scott Shanle says the form shown in those four wins is familiar to the players who were part of the Super Bowl-winning team.
“For the guys who were here in 2009, these past four weeks, there’s something that kind of resembles it and we just need to keep that going,” he said.
There are some key roles being played by players who were not a part of the 2009 success - tight end Jimmy Graham (1046 yards receiving), running back Darren Sproles (430 yards rushing and 522 receiving) and back Mark Ingram (470 yards rushing) are all having excellent seasons.
Injuries meant receiver Lance Moore did not make a regular season start two years ago, although he did feature in the Super Bowl, and he has put up 463 yards as part of this season’s powerhouse offense.
But the Saints need no reminder that while good form late in a season can build the kind of impetus that led to their first Super Bowl win, a campaign can also fade quickly. Last year they lost three of their final four games culminating in a surprise first-round playoff exit to Seattle.
Payton has seen improvement but is not yet ready to start proclaiming his team a clear upgrade on last year‘s.
“We have some areas where we’re better. I think there are some areas where we’re not playing as well particularly but I do think we are playing with confidence and time will tell,” said Payton. “We have a chance to see how this team stacks up to, not only last year’s team, but prior teams period.”
But it is the observation of free safety Malcolm Jenkins that indicates there might just be something clicking in New Orleans that could turn into a real challenge for the title.
“We’re playing complementary football, where the offense is putting up points and the defense is doing exactly what we need to do. Our special teams is playing great,” said Jenkins.
“And that is really what we did in 2009, we played complementary football. We did what we needed to do to win and I think we are doing the same thing now.”
Reporting by Simon Evans in Miami; Editing by Frank Pingue